Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

The Bishop Writes

"Wonderful hospitality and profound gratitude"

by Bishop William S. Skylstad

(From the Dec. 3, 2009 edition of the Inland Register)

In mid-November, 33 of us participated in a diocesan pilgrimage to our sister Diocese of Sololá, Guatemala. The journey was a profound experience of heartfelt solidarity and the Church Universal.

The eight-day visit began with a flight to Guatemala, and then a bus trip to Panajachel, on Lake Atitlan. In the eight years since my last visit to the area, there has been tremendous improvement of the Pan American Highway, which is now mostly four lanes. On the way to the hotel we visited the seminary in Solola. The local diocese has had a tremendous surge in vocations from among its people. Sololá’s Bishop Gonzalo de Villa SJ, said he would be ordaining about 10 priests by next summer.

The major celebration of the 50-year relationship with the Diocese of Sololá occurred with Bishop Gonzalo in Santa Caterina Ixtahuacán, where Father David Baronti, a priest of the Spokane Diocese, is pastor. Travelling down a steep mountain road off the Pan American Highway doesn’t make it an easy place to get to. The people greeted us a few hundred feet up the road before we got into town. Not only did we celebrate the 50th anniversary, but about 150 people were confirmed and 30 children received their First Communion. The church was packed, with probably 1,000 people standing in place. Father Mark Pautler and I assisted with the confirmations. A program of appreciation and a wonderful meal concluded the celebration.

The following day, Monday, our group headed up to Chwi Patan, the new Ixtahuacán on the main highway. After the devastating earthquake several years ago, and the danger of future quakes in the region, the town was relocated. The slopes of the area are part of a huge caldera. The new town is nicknamed “Alaska,” and for good reason: the altitude is about 11,000 feet. Built from scratch over the last 10 years, the town has cement streets and relatively nice homes, but water has to be trucked in. The gathering there took place in the large church which is still unfinished and not yet used for Eucharist. Again the gratitude of the people was profound. Afterwards we visited a reforestation project a few miles away over a dirt road that our big bus barely was able to navigate. Much of the area has been stripped of trees. Plots of replanting were all over. The reforestation assists tremendously with water retention, not to mention the potential for income as the concepts of sustainability and harvesting the timber can go hand in hand. One doesn’t have to question why the Church continues to take a strong stand about protecting the environment and about good stewardship of the land.

The next day, we traveled to Santiago de Atitlan across Lake Atitlan to visit the town and the Church. Incidentally we passed through some dirty brown bacteria in the lake that has been infected by pollution. From a distance the lake looks pristine, but now the bacteria have become a major source of concern. Evidently pollutants from the mountainsides around the caldera are causing the problem.

The visit to Santiago was very special and spiritual. Inside the Church we visited the shrine of Father Stan Rother, a missionary from Oklahoma City who was martyred there in July 1981. His heart is part of the shrine. In the years of violence in the country in the ’80s and ’90s, 200,000 people lost their lives. Bishop Juan Gerardi in Guatemala City was killed during that time, several days after he issued a human rights report on behalf of the bishops of Guatemala.

On Wednesday, we visited the town of Nahualá where we got off the bus about a half-mile from the church and walked the rest of the way to celebrate Mass. For at least a third of a mile, the people that morning had made sidewalk of pine needles all the way to the Church. Different signs and symbols were placed on the needles using flowers, flower pedals and colored sawdust. Truly it was spectacularly beautiful. I started to walk along the “path,” but quickly I was told that I must walk on it. So that’s what our group did. We celebrated Eucharist in the crowded church with at least 1,500 other people. Afterwards, a program of thanks and gratitude to us from the diocese was held in the school yard with gift after gift of appreciation from various groups. Then they feted us with a fine meal. After that came a visit to radio Nahualá. This station not only serves the people of the region (75,000 listeners) but is now online on internet so migrants in New York City from the area, for example, can listen to their home town station. Many of the men have left to find jobs.

The final visit on Thursday was to Novillero where Sisters Marie and Immaculata have served for 38 years. Again the grand welcome, Eucharist, a program of thanks with many gifts, and a wonderful meal. The people could not have been more gracious. One fellow in the program stressed how 50 years ago, they had no health care (they had to walk four hours to Sololá), no education, and almost no support services. Now all of that has changed. On the way back to Panajachel for the evening, we stopped for a brief visit at the Chapel of Our Lady of the Highway, where there was a pre-school. The little ones put on a cute presentation.

Our relationship with the Diocese of Sololá has truly been a profound blessing and a humbling experience … we who have so much and they so little, yet they are so grateful.

In a sense, one could think of this as an Advent story.

For 50 years, we have striven through our service in Guatemala to make concrete and visible our love for neighbor, but in turn we have discovered that the people in the Diocese of Sololá have given us even more by sharing the presence of Jesus with us in return. Yes, Jesus continues to come in wonderful and powerful ways.

A blessed and joyful Advent to all!

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