Friday, April 11, 2014

Final days in Colombia

Praised be Jesus Christ!
  We awoke early this morning to another gorgeous day:  blue skies and warm temperatures.  Or as Fr. Fabio remarked:  just like Bon Jovi's song:  "Another day in Paradise"!  At 7:30 this morning, I had the joy of presiding at the school Mass for the High School Seniors here at the Salesian School.  I celebrated the Mass in Spanish, and Fr. Fabio was kind enough (for the sake of the kids) to give the homily in Spanish.  It was a very enjoyable celebration with these young people who are getting ready to move on to the next phase of their young Catholic lives.   

  After breakfast, Fr. Fabio and I were guests of Fr. Fabio's friend Mario who wanted us to see the incredibly transformed city of Medellin, about a 45 minute drive from La Ceja.  Mario's profession is to participate in the social/civil leadership of this great city of which he is so proud.  The drive itself is quite interesting as the road goes up and over several mountain ranges on good, but very windy two-lane roads between here and there.  Medellin is at the foot of the mountain.  It is a very densely populated city of more than 3 million people.  The city has been recognized internationally as the #1 city for transforming and renewing itself according to cutting-edge environmental standards.  They have positively dealt with the issue of crime, and they have built a state of the art transportation system of subway/bus/cable cars/taxi systems which help with traffic congestion and encourage people to live and work in the city which is easily accessible and very, very safe.  We visited many different parts of the city which has a very festive atmosphere, but at the same time, is a city filled with highly professional people with a strong concentration on financial concerns.  It has been described as the Wall Street of South America.  After some touring, we visited the Salesian Provincial Offices just outside the downtown area where we met Father Oscar who was attending some provincial meetings.  The priests there were very hospitable to us and hosted us for a delicious lunch (that is, another big banquet/dinner),  Following lunch and a little rest, we left to experience the rapid transit system for ourselves as we rode the subway, and then took the cable cars up the mountain to the brand new and award-winning Library of Medellin.  The cable cars are quite an impressive part of the city's transportation system.  We returned to the Salesian Provincial House by subway, and then taxi cab, where we began our journey back to La Ceja with Mario doing the driving honors.  I was happy to find more people in Medellin who were bilingual and spoke English than in La Ceja or the other places we have visited while here.  I am truly grateful for Fr. Fabio who has been a wonderful traveling companion, but also who has been my translator all along the way.  Muchas gracias, Padre Fabio!
   So ends Day 4, and for all intents and purposes, so ends this Pastoral Visit.  Day 5 will primarily consist of traveling on 3 different flights which, with God's grace, will have us back in the Diocese of Kalamazoo by late tomorrow evening. For me this has been a wonderful adventure, a successful pastoral visit, and a very enlightening/inspiring/encouraging first-hand experience of the Church alive and well and thriving here in the continent to our far south, here in LaCeja, Medellin, Colombia, South America.  I give thanks to God for all the graces He bestowed on us through this trip, and for all the blessings that, I pray, will flow from this pastoral visit.  Buenas Noches!  Gloria a ti, Senor Jesus! (Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ!)

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Bishop Bradley's Reflections from Colombia Continued

Day 3 has been a very full and fulfilling day.
  As I have already stated, we are residing at the Salesian House on the property of a large School educating over 400 children from Pre-school all the way up to 11th grade (the last grade of the secondary system here).  The Salesians, founded by St. John Bosco, have had a consistent charism to the education of young children rooted in a system of faith and made unique by the Salesian spirituality of love for the whole person.  There are Salesian schools all over the world.  Here in Colombia, there are two large Provinces, here in Medellin and one in Bogota (which had originally been the spiritual home of our own dear Father Fabio until he came to the United States to begin ministry as a diocesan priest, first in Rockford, and then, thankfully, in the Diocese of Kalamazoo).  

  Here at this school, Father Oscar is the Rector/Principal, as well as our host.  He, and two other Salesian priests and one brother, along with about 25 members of the faculty, provide the educational and formational components to this school.  The school day begins at 7:00 a.m. and concludes at 4:30 p.m. (with 1 1/2 hours for lunch so that some children can go home if they live close by).  

   One of the practices in every Salesian school is that the day begins with the entire student body gathered as a community for what is called (here) "Buenos Dias", which simply means "Good morning/good day", but represents a time of welcoming the day with a brief prayer and meditation before all students goto their individual classes.

   So our Day 3 began with Fr. Fabio and I being the special guests at this morning's "Buenos Dias" at 7:00 a.m.  All 400 + students gathered together and welcomed us.  I was asked to give them a brief greeting and reflection (which Fr. Fabio translated for those who didn't understand English), and that was followed by a kind of "pep rally" to launch their new motto/theme for this next quarter of the school year:  "Train with Jesus in the Field of Life".   It is rooted in an athletic theme, but instead of focusing on the physical aspect of athletic training, the emphasis is on spiritual training so that all the young people can be successful in the "race" of life.  It was very inspiring.

  Father Fabio and I then celebrated Mass, followed by breakfast.  After breakfast, Father Oscar walked us through the vast grounds of this property about 1/2 mile away to the gorgeous setting of the Salesian Novitiate where about 30 young men are going through their novitiate year.  They represent the two Provinces in Colombia, as well as several provinces of countries around the region.  The Novice Director reminded me that the formation process for Salesians is quite rigorous.   A young man can enter the community after high school and goes through a time of aspirancy, followed by two years as postulants.  If that goes well, they enter the one-year novitiate.  After Novitiate, there are three years of philosophy, two pastoral years, and four years of theology before ordination.  Once again I was asked to greet this group of novices and offer them some thoughts.  The Salesian community is doing very well as these young men appear to be wonderful candidates to enter into this community.

  When we returned to the School, the children were outside for recess time, and as we walked around the school grounds, the children and the teachers were very friendly and outgoing in coming up to say hello, ask a question or to ask for a blessing.  It was quite impressive.

  After some quiet time, it was time for lunch.  I'm learning that here in Colombia, lunch is the main meal, or what we might call dinner.  It was a delicious meal with the members of the community.  After lunch/dinner, we traveled to make a courtesy visit with the Bishop of this Diocese of Sonson-Rionegro, Bishop (or as they refer to Bishops here, Monsignor) Fidel Leon Cadavid.  We visited at his residence which was very nice on a large plot of land, which also houses a seminary and a residence for priests who are experiencing some problems of various sorts.  Bishop Fidel greeted us and we had a very nice 30 minute meeting.  I was able to personally make the request that he consider our Diocese for some priests to assist us some time in the future.  He was more than open to the proposal, and we will need to make sure that we pursue that in the future.  The Chrism Mass for this Diocese is being celebrated tomorrow, when Bishop Fidel says that more than 200 priests will be in attendance from around the Diocese.  Of course, our Chrism Mass, which I am very much looking forward to, is not until Tuesday of Holy Week (less than one week away).  

  Father Hernan Dario Soto, one of the priests from Colombia who have helped us during the summer months with our Migrant Ministry in past years and who is one of the priests who will be coming sometime later this year to spend several years with us (thanks to his Bishop's generosity), came to meet us there.  We had a very nice visit with him and discussed the final details about his coming to our Diocese.  

  Sister Yamile and Sister Maria Teresa (of the Missionary Sisters Servants of the Divine Spirit) also met us there to take Father Fabio and I to visit "Christ the Priest" Seminary where about 100 young men are studying Theology for the local diocese and several neighboring dioceses.  This is the seminary which our newest seminarian, Roberto Guerrero, was attending and had completed his second year of theology when he decided that God was calling him to do missionary work in the Diocese of Kalamazoo.  Roberto is now attending St. Vincent de Paul Seminary in Boynton Beach, Florida (near Miami) studying English.  It was a good opportunity to talk to the Rector and Vice Rector there about Roberto, and to plant seeds about other young men who might decide to follow Roberto's lead to the Diocese of Kalamazoo.  

  After the visit to the seminary, the Sisters, Father Fabio and I made a special visit to our own Father Evelio Ramirez' parents, Luis and Celia Ramiriez who live right here in La Ceja.  Father Evelio is a well-known and highly respected figure here in La Ceja, and evidence of his artistic skills can be found in many places around this area, including at the School of St. Dominic Savio where we are residing.  We had an enjoyable, though brief, visit with these good, holy people and many of their family who had come to visit us as well.  We even got to visit briefly with Father Evelio via Skype.  

  We also stopped to visit the Basilica of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel  where the body of Bishop Alfonso Uribe Jaramillo, is buried so we could pray to/through him for continued blessings on our Diocese.  He is the bishop who was the founder of the Missionary Sisters of the Divine Spirit and so many different seminaries and other religious communities over 50 years ago.  He is described by everyone who knew him as a truly saintly person.

  The weather today was another gorgeous example of the paradise-like climate the people here enjoy year round.  If you can think of a perfect Michigan spring day, that would give you a perfect idea of the weather here these last two days.  

  Finally as this Day 3 comes to an end, I rejoice because two of my main objectives have been realized.  The first was to finalize the agreement with Mother Blanca to know that 3 of the Missionary Sisters of the Divine Spirit will be coming to establish a home (foundation) in our Diocese for the next five years; the second was to meet with the local Bishop with the hope that this kind of collaboration might continue and grow in years to come involving priests and seminarians, along with additional Sisters.  At the end of the day, Father Fabio and I had a very enjoyable evening with the Salesian men living here in this holy house.  

  The key impressions for this Day 3:  hope for the future because of the children and youth we have observed here in this school, encouragement about our seminarian Roberto, and hopefully additional seminarians and priests in the future; inspiration because of the strength of the Church here in general and the inspiring lives of good, holy people like Luis and Celia Ramirez and their family, and many families like them.  Buenas Noches!

Connecting with Colombia; Bishop Bradley's Reflections on his Pastoral Visit

Hola (Hello) from Medillin in Colombia, South America.  This is my first message to share reflections on my pastoral visit with the Hermanas Missioneras Siervas del Divino Espiritu/ Sisters Missionary Servans of the Divine Spirit.  Father Fabio and I spent Day 1 on 3 different airplanes from Kalamazoo to Chicago, then to Miami and finally to Medillin, all of which were on time and arrived safely at each leg of the journey, thanks be to God.  Father Oscar, the Rector of the Salesian House in La Ceja where we have been given hospitality during our stay here, was at the airport to pick us up, along with Mario, a former classmate and long time friend of Fr. Fabio.  After stopping for a bite to eat (my first taste of some of the delicious South American foods), we arrived at the Salesian residence, home for 3 priests and 1 brother.  We found our rooms and retired for a good night's sleep.  So, since we didn't do much but get from one place to another on Day 1, I've entitled this first message "Day 2". 

On Tuesday, Day 2, we awoke to a beautiful day here in Colombia.  Where we are staying is in a mountainous region, high up in the Andes, surrounded by lush trees and vegetation, with an almost "paradise-like" climate.  After the terribly harsh and long winter we have had in Michigan, I was ready for any change of temperatures, but the weather here today (and I understand most days) has been beautiful:  high 60's/low 70's, blue skies and no humidity.  In the morning, we enjoyed breakfast with the Salesian community, celebrated Mass and relaxed a bit. 

   Around mid-morning two of the Sisters, Sister Yamile and Sister Maria Theresa, came to pick us up to take us to the Motherhouse for our meeting.  Along the way, they showed us a few of the many Religious Houses and Seminaries there are in this part of Colombia.  

   Just a little background and context.  Colombia is a large country, just as the United States is.  Rather than "states" they are divided into "departments".  We are in the Department of Antiqua, and in the Ecclesiastical Province of the Archdiocese of Medellin.  More specifically, we are in the Diocese of Sonson-Rionegro where there are approximately 65 parishes, 450 priests, 190 seminarians, and approximately 578 religious sisters and about 150 religious men in about 40 different religious communities.  Of the 450 diocesan priests, about 200 are on loan to other dioceses in Colombia and in other dioceses around the world.  As you can see, the Diocese of Sonson-Rionegro is about the same size as the Diocese of Kalamazoo, but as you can see from the statistics, just about 10 times the number of priests, seminarians, sisters and Catholics.  The total population of the Diocese is 608,000, 99.9% of whom are practicing Catholics.

    This part of Colombia is also extremely "Catholic" in terms of an open display and practice of the Catholic faith.  The parish church remains the center of most activity in the cities and towns around, where for example the city of La Ceja, the size of Benton Harbor, has 6 large parishes to minister to the needs of the large number of Catholics.  So, there is truly a far different experience of "Church" here than in the Diocese of Kalamazoo, or in the United States in general.

   One of the reasons why these Sisters with whom I cam to meet (Sisters Missionaries Servants of the Holy Spirit) focus on sending their sisters to far off places is because they realize there is less need for their ministry here due to the huge numbers of other men and women religious.

We arrived at the Motherhouse which is even higher up in the mountains, perhaps 10,000 feet above sea level.  It is beautiful and somewhat difficult to reach due to the condition of the roads in that mountainous terrain.  We arrived at the top of the mountain to the Motherhouse to find a very large residence for the Sisters. There are about 150 members in this community, most of whom are out "on mission" in various places throughout South America and in Italy.  The new foundation that will be established in our Diocese will be the first one in the United States or in all of North America.  Here "at home base" there are about 20 senior and junior sisters, about 10 novices, 20 postulants and about 20 aspirants, all under the watchful and maternal care of Madre (Mother) Blanca.  Mother Blanca is the original Superior of this relatively young community which was established in 1982.  She had been the Provincial of a Capuchin community of religious sisters and was recruited by then Bishop Alphonso, who established a huge number of religious communities here in the Diocese of Sonson-Rionegro at that time.  He also was the founder of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement beginning here in South America, which was an outgrowth of the Charismatic Renewal which began in the late 1960's at Duquesne University (Holy Spirit Fathers) in Pittsburgh, and then transferred it's center to Ann Arbor, Michigan. 

   We were welcomed by the entire community of sisters, and all those in formation, with joyful happy faces and warm greetings.  Mother Blanca, Father Fabio and I first met to discuss our project, to have further explanations and answer questions about the details of the project, and to come to the formal conclusion that I was hoping for:  Mother Blanca assures us that she will be sending us 3 young sisters to establish this foundation for the next 5 years, thanks to the generosity of the grant from the Catholic Extension Society.  They have already begun the paperwork for the immigration process but she can not publicly announce who the sisters will be until after their Chapter meeting in June.  So, the purpose of our pastoral visit has already been realized and, thanks be to God, and thanks to the generosity of Mother Blanca and these dear Sisters, we will be the new home for a small group of their Sisters by later this summer.

   After our meeting, we had a delicious lunch (which was more like a banquet), with some beautiful musical selections by some of the Sisters, and a tour of the Motherhouse, along with its large grounds where they raise tomatoes, chickens, and various other things.  When it was time for our departure, it felt like we were truly leaving new and cherished members of our Family of Faith in the Diocese of Kalamazoo which now extends to the beautiful heights of the Andes Mountains in Colombia, South America.

   Before taking us back to the Salesian House, Sister Yamile, Sister Maria Theresa and Mother Blanca wanted to take us to see "The Rock".  It was about a 90-minute drive, but it was worth it to see the lush, beautiful countryside, filled with agriculture and what I would call "step farming" along the rolling hillsides of the area.  "The Rock" is a huge meteor that crashed to the ground thousands of years ago.  It rises 200 feet in the air, but 2/3 of the meteor is imbedded deep into the earth.  It is a local sight-seeing destination and actually the official landmark for this entire area.  It was truly an amazing sight to see.  

   We got back to the Salesian House after dusk.  Fr. Fabio and I, along with our Salesian host, Father Oscar, were invited to dinner to the home of one of Fr. Fabio and Fr. Oscar's classmate and his wife and children.  It was a lovely evening with a beautiful faith-filled family, and was a perfect ending to Day 2 here in Colombia, South America.  Buenos Noches!