Mission, Our Third Role
October 28, 2011
by Rev. Arthur J. Colgan, C.S.C. '68
In the tumultuous years following the French Revolution, Blessed Basil Moreau responded to the pressing needs of the Church through Christian education, parish ministry and missionary endeavors, sending the priests, brothers and sisters of Holy Cross to the places where they were most needed. The missionary spirit and zeal for ministry has characterized the Congregation throughout its history - and also in the establishment of the Congregation in Peru.
In the early 1960s, Pope John XXIII called on religious communities to send missionaries to Latin America. These too were tumultuous times. Rapid changes were taking place in Latin America in the economic, political and social spheres. Change and revolution were in the air. John XXIII wanted to strengthen the presence of the Church during these challenging times, especially among the poorest of the continent.
Father George DePrizio C.S.C., Provincial of the Eastern Province at that time, not only wanted Holy Cross to respond, but felt the call to answer in a personal way. He resigned as Provincial in order to go to Peru and assist in the establishment of the mission. In 1963, the Congregation accepted responsibility for a parish in the Northern rural town of Cartavio, the site of a large sugar plantation. The Holy Cross presence would expand in the late sixties to the northern fishing port city of Chimbote, and in the seventies to the southern Andean town of Chucuito.
1976 was a decisive year for the Congregation in Peru. The Provincial Chapter established Peru as a District in the Congregation. The growing expatriate community felt that it was ready to accept local candidates into the Congregation. This had long been the tradition in the missionary foundations of Holy Cross: after a time of acclimation, to root the Congregation in the local culture and context. As a first step in that direction, the first District Chapter decided to open a formation house (seminary) in Lima, the capital of Peru, in order to have access to philosophy and theology programs located there.
The Congregation approached the then Archbishop of Lima, Cardinal Juan Landázuri, OFM, and asked his permission to open the formation house. The Cardinal insisted that the Congregation take a parish in Lima as a condition for opening the formation house. This was to be the providential beginning of a long and significant pastoral presence of Holy Cross in the slum neighborhood of Canto Grande on the outskirts of the city of Lima.
In the sixties and seventies, the population of Lima grew as people flocked from the countryside into to the city fleeing rural poverty and seeking better job opportunities and better education for their children, a phenomenon that repeated itself in all of the large cities of Latin America. In the eighties, the migration to the cities increased dramatically as peasants in the countryside were caught in the crossfire of the violent Maoist insurgents of Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path) and the counterinsurgency of the Peruvian military.
The start of the Canto Grande neighborhood in Lima where Holy Cross has served for more than 35 years was no different than the start of so many slum neighborhoods in the cities of Latin America.
In 1976, more than 400 families who were seeking a place to live in Lima squatted on land near the center of the city. After several attempts by authorities to remove them, a negotiated settlement was reached and the families were relocated on the outskirts of Lima in a dry, barren, rocky stretch of land that had been used by the Peruvian Army for exercises. This area on the Northeast side of the city of Lima was called Canto Grande.
When Holy Cross approached Cardinal Landázuri for permission to open the formation house, the concern for the new squatters in Canto Grande was high on his list of pastoral priorities. When we said that we had come to Peru to serve the poor, he responded by asking us to accept the challenge of living with the squatters of Canto Grande and start from scratch a new parish there. The Cardinal and the Congregation agreed that the new parish would be called "Our Lord of Hope" (El Señor de la Esperanza), a fitting name for this pastoral endeavor in the service of the poor.
Fathers Bob Plasker, C.S.C. and Bob Baker, C.S.C. were asked to begin the project. When they arrived in Canto Grande, there was neither running water, nor electricity. People were living in precarious one room shacks made from straw mats, cardboard or tin. Over the years, the neighborhood of Canto Grande has continued to grow as new families arrive. Neighborhood organizations have played a key role in pressuring the government for running water, electricity, paved roads and public transportation. In the older parts of Canto Grande , the straw mat shacks have been replaced by more stable structures as families save and buy bricks, cement and steel rods to gradually build a home.
Today Canto Grande is a teeming and vibrant neighborhood that has a population of close to half a million people. The flat land in the Canto Grande valley has been almost entirely occupied, so newer arrivals now squat on precarious, smaller plots far up on the hillsides. They are truly the poorest of the poor and the parish prioritizes an outreach to these new neighborhoods.
The original Our Lord of Hope Parish has been subdivided into five new parishes. Our Lord of Hope continues to be the largest parish in Peru - serving more than 250,000 people. Today there are more than 19 parish centers, chapels and churches spread strategically around the neighborhood.
Shortly after arriving in Canto Grande, the Holy Cross community, following the tradition since the founding decided to complement the parish ministry with an educational endeavor. After much consultation, Holy Cross too on the responsibility for a primary and secondary school in the Fe y Alegria system, a wonderful network of free schools for the poor sponsored by the Jesuits In Peru and other Latin American countries. Today the Fe Y Alegria School in Canto Grande serves more than 2,000 students on the primary and secondary level and with a diversified job training program.
From the very beginning it was clear that the involvement of lay people in evangelization and pastoral ministry would be crucial if we were to reach the majority of people living in the Canto Grande neighborhood. For more than twenty five years, the Holy Cross community has run a training program for lay ministers in the Canto Grande parish called "La Escuela de Agentes Pastorales" (The School for Lay Pastoral Ministers). It is a three year program that runs for nine months each year on Friday nights. The school serves lay leaders from the parish chapels and pastoral centers and from the neighboring parishes. More than 150 lay people participate in the program each year. All of us are struck by the willingness of lay people from the parish to come on Friday nights after a demanding and exhausting work week. Their desire to deepen their faith, understand the Word of God, and prepare for ministry is an inspiration to us.
Each of the 19 chapels and pastoral centers spread around the neighborhood has programs for faith formation, catechesis, and sacramental preparation as well as the daily and weekend liturgical celebrations. The chapels and pastoral centers have local pastoral councils, and participate through delegates in the broader parish council that coordinates pastoral work and programs in the whole parish.
The reality of poverty in the Canto Grande neighborhood is overwhelming. It contradicts God's will that all of His children have access to basic resources and live in dignity. While it is impossible for the parish community to resolve all of the poverty issues and respond to all of the pressing needs of the people, over the years the parish has discerned several areas of involvement in social ministry to address some of these issues and bear witness to the values of the Kingdom of God in the midst of the poor.
Health issues are crucial in slum neighborhoods like Canto Grande. The parish now has two well-developed health clinics, under the patronage of St. Andre Bessette (Policlinicos Hermano Andres). They provide not only essential primary and specialized care to people who would otherwise not have access to health services, also organize educational and preventative programs that mobilize the people to respond in the face of some of the more significant health challenges, such as combating infant mortality and providing medicine and support groups for people who are ill with tuberculosis.
Among the poorest of the poor in Canto Grande are people, especially children and young adults, who struggle with physical and mental challenges. For a number of reasons that are directly connected with the reality of poverty (poor pre-natal care; high incidence of lead poisoning in children due to environmental contamination; malnutrition in the crucial years of development, etc.) the incidence of mental and physical handicaps is especially high in Canto Grande. For a number of cultural and religious reasons, parents in the past have tried to hide their handicapped children feeling that they are an embarrassment and perhaps a punishment from God.
Over thirty years ago, the parish, under the leadership of Father Dan Panchot, C.S.C. began a modest but significant program to provide services to handicapped children and their parents called Yancana Huasy (in Quechua Indian dialect, the "house of work"). Today Yancana Huasy has grown and flourished. It provides healthcare, physical rehabilitation, and job and life skill training for those who are physically and mentally challenge. It involves parents and family members directly in the process of rehabilitation. A primary emphasis of all of the programs is inclusion of those who are physically and mentally challenged in the educational system and in all facets of the life of the community.
For obvious reasons, family life issues are crucial for significant changes and progress in a neighborhood like Canto Grande. As a direct result of poverty, family life is unstable and most families do not have the physical, psychological and environmental resources to insure quality family life. The results are evident in the instability of families and its negative impact on children and young people as they grow up.
The parish, in conjunction with Holy Cross Family Ministries (that continues the pioneering work of the Servant of God, Father Patrick Peyton, C.S.C.), has sponsored an Institute for the Family that does research on family life issues, and provides a series of important programs in support of healthy family life in Canto Grande. Among the most successful programs are a program for family counseling that uses older, successful couples from the neighborhood (under the supervision of a professional counselor) in providing support for families in crisis; a program that supports women who are suffering physical abuse that helps men to talk about and address the factors that trigger violence on their part; and a number of programs for adolescents and young adults in the parish and the local schools.
A beautiful center, dedicated to Father Patrick Peyton, provides the setting for many of the family life programs as well as serving as an important meeting place for other community programs in the neighborhood. A significant example of the latter is the Working Group on Drugs that meets regularly at the Peyton Center. It brings together representatives from government agencies, local police, the judicial system, non-governmental agencies and the Church to address drug distribution and consumption issues in the local neighborhoods.
The work of the Servant of God, Father Patrick Peyton, C.S.C., also continues in Peru through the Family Rosary Program, promoting family prayer, lay spirituality and the praying of the rosary. Its programs, services and resources benefit people not only in Canto Grande, but also in three other dioceses in Peru.
Canto Grande is the sight of the administrative offices of the District of Peru, as well as the setting for the formation program of the Congregation (seminary). Holy Cross continues to receive young Peruvian men into the Congregation and prepares them for religious life and ministry in Holy Cross. The formation program has borne fruit over the years. Today six young Peruvian Holy Cross priests serve side by side with seven expatriates. Further educational and pastoral preparation has readies them to assume positions of responsibility in the District. Today the Pastor of Our Lord of Hope Parish, the Assistant District Supervisor, and the Director of the Formation Program are all Peruvian Holy Cross priests.
Over the years, the Congregation has left other sites of ministry (Cartavio, Chimbote, Chucuito and Tacna) to concentrate and strengthen the Congregation's efforts in the diverse and complementary pastoral services and ministries in Canto Grande. The presence of Holy Cross in Canto Grande is a wonderful "sign of hope" for a people who struggle each day to eke out an existence in the dry, barren plains of Canto Grande. The parish community, the Fe y Alegria School, the Brother André Health Clinics, the Yancana Huasy Program, the Institute for the Family and Family Rosary have provided people with opportunities to grow in a sense of their worth and dignity as children of God, and deepen and strengthen a faith that motivates and inspires works of solidarity and justice.
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