Thursday, July 19, 2012

Bolivia meets Calcutta
Bolivia is a popular place for volunteer work—after all, it is the second poorest country in Latin America, next to Haiti, and attracts volunteers of all ages, denominations, and occupations. Civil engineers, like Jason Obergfell,  a Maryknoll lay missioners; Minh Phuong,  a hairdresser from North Vietnam by way of Maryland, another lay Maryknoll; Lil Mattingly, a nurse and Maryknoll sister from Louisville, Kentucky; physical therapists;  as well as educators, psychology and sociology majors like our missioners; a chaplain like myself, and English professors like Joel and me, want to bring our different skillsets to Bolivia.

The Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s order, whom we call the Sisters of Calcutta, have also been drawn to Bolivia. This order has had its own church and school for many years in Bolivia, but recently opened a house for the dying in Santa Vera Cruz in the spring of 2011. We Franciscans had seen the Calcutta Sisters’ church and school from a distance at the top of a hill where Padre Pablo, a Maryknoll, lives. I was awed that the Missionaries of Charity had come here to help the Bolivian poor, but as months passed, I came to know the sisters better and thought of them as fellow missioners.  Joel teaches English to the AIDS residents there (called SIDA in Spanish) on Tuesday mornings.

We first visited the mission in Santa Vera Cruz after our return from Carmen Pampa, well over a year ago. The clean, white buildings impressed me.  The chapel itself was simple, open, uncluttered. Upon our arrival, we were given coffee and sandwiches (we had come at lunchtime) before talking with the sister who was to take us out to the prison where we would start our English classes.  Her name was Sister Mary Oceal, from Argentina, and yes, she did look like a younger Mother Teresa.  We met sisters from Africa, and Sister Jocelle from Peru, a key advocate for the men in the prison where we serve.  She was there when one of the inmates was about to receive his sentence for drug trafficking, a spiritual support; while Joel was there for friendship; and Joe Loney was there for legal counsel—all of them missioners from other countries, helping a man from Mali.

Later on last spring, we returned to the Calcutta Sisters’ mission, along with many Maryknoll missioners, for the grand opening of the Sisters’ residence for the dying.  Tito Solari, Archbishop of Cochabamba, celebrated the Mass.

Last Friday, July 13, 2012, the Mother-General  of the Missionaries of Charity, Mary Prema (whose name means “love” in Sanscrit) , came to Santa Vera Cruz to visit her order and bless their work.  Joel and I were among the guests.  We met Michael Reddell, fellow Franciscan missioner, at Kilometer 7, the exit that leads to the Calcutta Sisters’ church and mission, and then caught up with Leslie, a short-term lay volunteer (nine months) with Maryknoll. Walking down the hill from the school and church and onto the campus of the hospice, we saw other short-term Maryknolls, two young men, hoeing in the gardens adjacent to the buildings. The campus had been transformed since I had last been there, landscaped, with neat vegetable rows lining the ample garden plots. So much order and industry in the midst of poverty and disorder!

At the Mass, the children from K’ara K’ara (basically pronounced “K” with a clicking sound, Cada Cada) were sitting on the front rows. They were as poor as any children I had seen at Carmen Pampa. They were friendly and excited, squirming in their seats and even a bit inattentive to the Archbishop who directed his homily to them, with only a couple of students answering his questions. But he persisted in addressing them, the adults watching on approvingly.

Sister Mary Prema, who is the second Mother-General  (2009) since Mother Teresa’s death, sat in the front row. She smiled happily throughout the Mass.

Some of the residents sang in the choir and served as lectors.  Many residents were in wheelchairs, one man without legs, but nevertheless playing the tambourine.  All appeared to be glad to be there, and the music was energizing.

The ceremony afterwards honored the visiting Mother General. Dancing and reciting were the order of the day. One of Joel’s students, Jorge Luis, danced the Cueca, a courtship dance.  The children performed their dances, and two young men break danced, a popular activity here in Bolivia. Various gifts were presented to Mother Mary Prema, an aguayo bag, other artisania, flowers, which she accepted with the graciousness of royalty and the gratitude of a real mother.

When the offerings of song, dance, and oratory came to an end, Mother Mary Prema gave all of the guests a small folder with a picture of Mother Teresa, a prayer and holy medal of the blessed founder, and two miraculous medals. I was able to talk with Mother Mary Prema, briefly, in English. She was kind, humble, and grateful to visit a mission so far away. It was then that I remembered that one of Mother Teresa’s greatest joys, as recorded in her dark journal, Be Thou My Light, was the divinity of Christ that she discerned in the sisters of her congregation. Their joy in serving their Lord, their faith and sense of peace—all were God’s gifts to these sisters in their service to the poor. This Mother General reflected the same joy and faith.
Mary Prema, Mother-General
 of the Missionaries of Charity
On the sidelines were the residents too ill to take part in the ceremony. Many had come from their rooms despite their pain, in order to attend Mass and watch the performances. What did these dying men feel and think as they watched the ceremony before them?  I just hoped that these men who had been momentarily upstaged by the performer would once again be at center stage tomorrow and the day after that when the fiesta was over.  

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