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Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
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Guatemala Dateline: A trip to Esquipulas

by Father David Baronti, for the Inland Register

(From the Sept. 13, 2001 edition of the Inland Register)

If you are Guatemalan, you recognize this story. It is from Jose Milla’s book, The Nazarenes.

A certain blind man, at the culminating point of a religious journey, recovered his sight while kneeling before an image that was even then — 200 years ago — cynosure for all Central American pilgrims. According to Milla, the gold coin that the man offered in appreciation produced a kind of donor’s remorse: walking back up the mountain that separates the town from the rest of Guatemala (Honduras and Salvador are a few miles distant) he second-guessed himself for having released the piece (“I was already cured. What was the need?”).

At that moment, his luminous eyes became filled with darkness even as his empty hand opened up around a shining coin that he could not see.


Anyone who has lived in the area — even if he does not recognize the story — will recognize the referred-to image: it is the carving of the black Christ that hangs within the basilica built around it at Esquipulas to house it like a huge reliquary — the coal-black crucified effigy so venerated that pilgrims withdraw from it backwards, whether they are in its sanctuary, in the nave, or on the street — so venerated that the humble from surrounding nations who visit it often make the last mile of their journey over flint-edged feldspars and inflorescences of jagged, coral-like lavas on their knees.

Even though I am less certain than Milla of its actual historicity, I have nevertheless grown to revere this story. It matters not that it seems to clash somewhat with the unconditional love of Jesus that I proclaim; it matters not that none of the Evangelists would have Jesus turning on someone who sinned in this way; it matters not that it seems to distort the Lord’s face. So does an El Greco painting distort Our Lord’s face — a beautiful, holy, sanctifying El Greco.

Every missionary has his own idea of what constitutes a successful ministry. For one with whom I spoke a few years back, it occurs when you have vanquished the old guard and can assert your prerogatives freely.

Esquipulas is a different litmus test. One becomes missionary when one is “vanquished” by the local faith. One finally drops standard text objections, and stands, wide-eyed, before their Manhattan-like nightscapes of candles, arranged on tile blocks set in quadrants like a miniature city, their battered images, brought to the Esquipulas Benedictines to be blessed, their bleeding knees. If “error” produces such faith, then there is a level of Truth incommensurate with many of the systems of truth and error that we carry — a level that absorbs the “error” and makes it holy. Less error’s “opposite,” this truth is error’s companion on the journey, less opposed (one senses this when living with the poor with knife-edged acuity) to their errors than to the background of the missionary. This Truth is Jesus before Pilate (John 18:37) — the antithesis of wealth, materialism, the suffocations produced by commodious living.

Such was the experience of the martyred American Stan Rother who defended the presence of Maximon in his church, even as he acknowledged its heterodoxy. I did not understand this at the time. Now, however, I have been in Guatemala in mortal flesh even longer than Stan.

Such has been the experience of Guatemala’s new archbishop, Quezada Toruna, who a few years back, I am told, made an impassioned plea to the Holy Father in favor of religiosidad popular — “people’s religion.” I have no idea what the archbishop told him (I don’t know him), but I know what I would say to my own compatriots of lesser rank. Distortions produced by the centuries-old popular faith that is here are different from heresies produced by pride or obstinacy. Latin soil is feral and rich. The priest who wishes to control everything in his garden here is not long-lived. This isn’t north (of Mexico) America, where you go to the nursery to get your plants, where all plants and dogs and animals — as well as answers from catechisms — come from the experts, all domesticated and labeled and segregate, where only weeds grow if flowers are not brought from the nursery. This is Latin America, where unhybridized fuchsias and dahlias are pried from roadside banks by sweating hands, where religion has been handed down by word of mouth by people who put household altars where Americans put television sets, by people who put candles and “saints” where the more correct Northerners have their rums and whiskeys. Religion is part of the environment here — with or without “nurseries.”

Such, too, seems to have been the experience of the Holy Father. According to Abbot Gregory of the Benedictine monastery at Esquipulas, his is the smallest town to which a Holy Father has made an official visit. The Holy Father is “captivated” by Esquipulas, the abbot says.

In fact, for all of the legends surrounding it, Esquipulas is not at all heterodox, in its essence. Quite the contrary: the image sculpted at the request of a small group of Chorti Indians for 100 tostones by Quirino Cataño in 1594 represents Jesus’ supreme glory, according to John, and the subsequent history a fulfillment of that same gospel’s greatest prophecy: "And when I am lifted up from this earth, I will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32).

The rapidity with which the surrounding peoples became enamored of the Esquipulas image suggests that the Jesus of St. John was impelling them. By 1759, the image, already blackened by the votary candles before it (it was originally made in the umber-skinned likeness of the local natives), needed to be transferred from its hermitage to a larger church. In 1962, Pope John XXIII declared the church a basilica; in 1993 Pope John Paul personally blessed it.

The pilgrimage of 270 men, women and children that I led to Esquipulas Aug. 13-16 on the occasion of my 25th anniversary to the priesthood had its inception one Saturday night about four years ago, in late February. I had just finished hearing confessions. The loudspeakers were blaring from one of four quasi-charismatic anniversaries, and I decided to do some monitoring. It was one of my more disturbing experiences in these precincts. After our own quasi-charismatic leader Manuel Ixquiactap (of the fifths community) harangued about the need to shout hallelujah even more during Lent (he was explicitly challenging the instructions that I had given the previous Sunday), one of the guest preachers felt motivated to list the characteristics of a true Christian.

The first item had to do with radio programs, and the need to shun all secular broadcasting; the second item was Esquipulas. “We don’t commit that idolatry.” Amen. Amen. (He, they) He was objecting not to any of the superstitions associated with Esquipulas, nor to any epiphenomenon, but simply to the fact that Esquipulas is a crucifix, and crucifixes are (see Exodus 20:20) idols, carved images.

If I had thought about remonstrating with them, something else occurred that restrained me. Someone in the crowd had put a cocoon-wrapped package in a congested area in the path of my feet. It made no sound under the (maximum) 5 percent of my weight that I put on it before my angel stopped me, nor did I know, until I unwrapped it, and handed it back to the father, that it even was a baby. It was, in fact, still sleeping.

That did not matter; I had given them their weapon. If I had attempted to remonstrate, they would bring up the trampled baby.

But, baby or no baby, my reaction (learned over the years) would have been the same. Wait. Communities are the most closely knit groups outside of the family in Ixtahuacán, and in some cases one suspects that the members’ emotional attachment to them is even stronger. I looked at the young man as he accepted the praise of the host fourth community. I thought of his father, and grandfather who had almost certainly made the month-long trip to Esquipulas before there were roads, the hunger they endured, the sacrifices they made. I thought of the long years up until the 1940s when the Guatemala Church, because of political intervention, was bereft of priests — and the constant, sacramental presence of the “black Christ” in the long, 60-year interim. I thought, even, perhaps the Church could not exist as it exists today, were it nor for the “black Christ.” In turmoil for the way that this young whippersnapper was contemning not only respect for images, but for Papal and Episcopal authority, I nevertheless knew that I had to wait.

I bade my time until a few weeks before my anniversary. The people wanted an enormous, all-day celebration with preachers, presents, radio, and (above all) high-decibel music. I asked that, given the nature of the event, that they might not respect my wishes and participate in a complementary activity.

Thus it was that on Aug. 12 we left in five buses for San Pedro Pinuela, and on Aug. 13 that we began our walk, with the rousing words of our host Father Romeo carrying us on, with surfboard-like exhilaration, until the waves that he created gave way. By the time we straggled into the town of Ipala 35 kilometers distant, we needed to be picked up and fed and lodged by another priest.

The next day’s walk, to Quetzaltepeque, also about 35 kilometers, was the most difficult and the most rewarding. The difficult part manifested itself about seven that evening. As I, fully vested and escorted by two other priests, limped painfully through the door of the church, main celebrant for the main Mass of my anniversary, Balthazar Tambríz, director of the pilgrimage, stepped in front of me, crying: “The people have rebelled. They’ve had it. They want to bus the rest of the way.”

A few minutes earlier, the leader of our second community, Diego Saquic, used the magic word choq’ab’ as in, “who gave you choq’ab’ (lit., force) over me?” — in challenging Balthazar’s authority. (Leaders here don’t like to have others with choq’ab’ over them. That’s the reason why we have so many communities.)

Father Francisco, my 53-year-old Capuchin host, who was walking next to me, smiled serenely. “These are just little incidents along the way.”

Thereafter followed this pilgrimage’s most obvious grace. A second priest, giving the homily, spoke movingly of Our Lady’s pilgrimage and of the pain that is constituent of all true spiritual journeys.

Such was the effect of this Mass (that included public gifts made to Balthazar and to me) that when we arrived to talk to the participants afterwards, they had already decided to continue on with the journey.

I was ecstatic. I knew that if I could get them through the door of the basilica together the next day after a final, third-day of walking, they would practically all weep.

They did — in front of (fellow pilgrims) Manuel Ixquiactap and Diego Saquic.

Two days later, at their anniversary for me, I fashioned a cross made from two pine tips during my homily. In front, I placed a spit-wad-like effigy. This “crucifix” I then told them (following Col. 1) is the image of the invisible God. “Image” obviously does not mean that Jesus had His Father’s hair color and eyes. It means that Jesus “imaged” God’s love perfectly. The soldier who could barely make out Jesus’ final silhouette from 300 yards away saw God’s image the same as Mary, who knew every detail of his glorious face. This spit-wad figure is more what the soldier saw, Quirino Cataño’s marvelous work is a devoted attempt to recreate the vision of Mary. The golden calf is a thing of the past. With Jesus on the cross, God gave us an image that we can — indeed, must — recreate.

I knew when I said that that Esquipulas was one great grace.

(Father Baronti has been a missioner in Guatemala for more than two decades.)

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