Friday, January 20, 2017

Day 4 - Pastoral Trip to Colombia

Today was a beautiful day here in La Ceja.  It began with sun shine, blue sky, light breeze, lush growth all around us---just like Heaven must be like.  This was another good day with wonderful opportunities to grow stronger the bonds between the Sisters and our Diocese.
            The day began with Fr. Fabio and I celebrating Mass with the entire community.  Just a note about that before I reflect on the beautiful Mass.
            As most everyone knows, normally the Motherhouse of any religious community is not very full.  The only ones who typically live there during the normal months of the year are those young Sisters still in formation and those Sisters in leadership with administrative and formational oversight.  Here in Colombia, most of the schools are "on holiday" for the month of January, not commencing the new school year until February 1st.  Similarly January is a time when many of the Sisters spend some vacation time with their families.  And, of course, during the normal time of the year, the Sisters "on mission" are busily involved with the ministry to which they have been assigned throughout South America, in Italy, and now in Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA.  However, in light of the upcoming first anniversary of the death of the community's Foundress, Mother Blanca Ilvia Alvarez, as much of the entire community as can do so is returning to the Motherhouse these days for a week of observance of this anniversary and time to be together.  So, when we arrived here on Monday evening, the only ones here were those young Sisters, novices, postulants and aspirants in formation, along with the administration (about 25).  However, each day there has been one or two or three additional Sisters "returning home".  By this morning, the numbers had swelled, and I'm sure the numbers will increase even more the rest of today into tomorrow.  So, we are slowly able to witness the coming together of most of this religious community. 
            Getting back to this morning's Mass, then, the Chapel was almost twice as full as it was in the beginning of the week.  Father Fabio and I had decided that we would celebrate a Mass of Anniversary for Mother Blanca while we were here.  It was a beautiful celebration.  I was privileged to preside and I preached the homily as well, in Spanish, and it seemed that the Sisters were able to understand----so, thanks be to God for that. It is clear that Mother Blanca's impact on the growth and development of this community remains very strong, as does her maternal presence here on a daily basis.  She is revered and held in great esteem.  May she Rest In Peace.
            After breakfast, there was some free time until Mother Consuelo and the Council took          Fr. Fabio and I to a nearby town for a pleasant lunch/meeting at a very traditional restaurant by the name of Sancho Paisa.  Indigenous cooking includes a lot of fire grilled meats and foods.  I chose the delicious grilled fish, accompanied of course by patacon and the delicious fruit drink known as guanabana.  The meal was great and the company/discussion among the Sisters was even better.  But to make the point about what a strongly Catholic country this is, as we were getting ready to leave, one of the young waiters came over to ask me to bless his rosary, and the young man who waited on our table took off his hat and asked me to bless him as well.  Then we went outside to get in the car, and the young parking lot attendant stopped and asked very politely for a blessing.  As I said to the Sisters, you would not find that happening very often in Kalamazoo!
            On the way back to La Ceja, we stopped at a beautiful natural waterfall in the lush forest-like countryside.  It was so beautiful that, in spite of the rain, I asked the Sisters to pull over so I could take a photo. 
Upon return to La Ceja, we visited the Salesian School there in the city.  It was there that Fr. Fabio and I stayed on our first trip here in 2014 because of Fr. Fabio's strong ties to the Salesian community.  It was very nice to see this beautiful Catholic facility once again, a school for K-11, of over 400 students.  Even though the school year is not yet in session, we met two of the 9th grade young men who were there, both of whom are bi-lingual.  Many of the schools, both Catholic and public in the country of Colombia strongly encourage the teaching of English as a second language.  The young Salesian priest who is the Principal of the School has done Migrant Ministry in our Diocese, and it was very nice to see him again.
            We returned to the Motherhouse about 3:30 p.m., in plenty of time to prepare for the Eucharistic Holy Hour scheduled for 5:00 p.m..  That was when the overriding mood of joy and happiness took a bit of a sad turn.  As Fr. Fabio and I were walking to the Chapel a little before 5:00 p.m., we could see all the Sisters milling around.  Mother Consuelo had just received a phone call to say that one of the Sisters, Sister Antonia, who was on her way back to the Motherhouse for this weekend's celebrations, died very suddenly as she was getting off the train in Medellin.  Her blood sister was at the train depot to meet her, and then was to bring her to the Motherhouse.  Instead, she got to greet her sister, who then fainted, and in spite of immediate emergency assistance that was offered, died.  Needless to say, there has been a pall of sadness that has descended upon this holy place. 
            Keep in mind that this religious community, the Misseoneras Siervas del Divino Espiritu (Missionary Servants of the Holy Spirit) are a younger community than we are a Diocese.  We were established in 1971; these Sisters were only founded in 1983.  Mother Blanca was considered the Foundress of the community, but there are still four other Sisters living who are considered co-founders.  Other than Mother Blanca, Sr. Antonia is the first Sister to die  in 34 years.  Besides that, Sr. Antonia was active, not ill in any way that anyone knew about, and was just 57 years of age. 
            As the Sisters began to move into action to take the necessary steps of driving to Medellin to be with Sr. Antonia's sister, and go through all the steps that would need to be taken in the case of such a sudden death, the rest of the Sisters went to the Source of all consolation---to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.  How providential that this scheduled Holy Hour was exactly what everyone needed at that very moment.  God is good!  Fr. Fabio and I also feel that it was in God's providence that we were here for this sad time in the community so that, even in sadness, we can be here to be support and even more strongly forge the bonds between us.  Mother Consuelo and the Council told us the same thing---they are so happy that we can be here to help them through this by our presence.  As I mentioned to the community, Sr. Antonia was on her way back home to the motherhouse for this special time of community celebration; God in His wisdom decided to call her Home for her eternal rest, and all the many sisters who will be here for this week of planned meetings and celebrations can celebrate the life of Sr. Antonia.  May she Rest In Peace.  It is planned that, barring any problems, Sister Antonia's body will be here in time for morning Mass, and then the 24-hour vigil will take place in preparation for the Funeral Mass on Saturday. 
            After the hour of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, with everyone's faith renewed and strengthened, we enjoyed a delicious dinner together.  Following dinner, Fr. Fabio and I met with Mother Consuelo and the new young Sister the community is appointing to take the place of Sister Dora who had to come back to the Motherhouse due to some health issues.  The new Sister is Sister Maria Eugenia Gomez.  She is what is known as a "junior professed" Sister in temporary vows.  Depending on how long it takes for the immigration papers and process to be completed will determine when she can come, but hopefully by March.  It was a pleasure to visit with her, find out a bit about her background, and see first hand what a great addition she will be to Sisters Maryud and Yulianna.  Interestingly, she is one of 13 children in her family, and one of her blood sisters is also a member of this same religious community.  Of course, we could not let a big moment like this pass without the required "photo op" so I hope you will enjoy that photo. 

            One of the themes for my homily at this morning's Mass as we began this day was the Psalm Refrain for today:  "Here am I Lord, I come to do your will".  I spoke about how living out those powerful words is truly the path to holiness.  As we bring an end to Day 4, with the sadness of the death of Sr. Antonia hanging over this community, those words remain just as true, in life and in death:  "Here am I Lord, I come to do Your will."   With God's grace, as we know, all things are possible, even complete submission to and joyful embrace of God's holy will in our lives wherever He leads us. 

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