Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Guatemala mission’s Bishop de Villa visits Spokane; ‘we are in an enormous and very quick transition’

by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff

(From the Feb. 26, 2009 edition of the Inland Register)

Bishop Gonzalo de Villa SJ is bishop of the Diocese of Sololá-Chimaltenango, where the Spokane Diocese’s mission activity is located. He is pictured greeting the students during Mass at St. Patrick Parish, Spokane. (IR photo courtesy of St. Patrick School, Spokane)

From Wednesday, Feb. 4 through Monday, Feb. 9, Bishop William Skylstad hosted the bishop of the diocese in Guatemala with which the Spokane Diocese has had a “Sister Diocese” relationship for 50 years.

Bishop Gonzalo de Villa, a Jesuit, became the bishop of Sololá-Chimaltenango in 2007. This was his first visit to Spokane.

It was a trip with a full itinerary. During his six-day visit, Bishop de Villa visited Gonzaga Preparatory School, Gonzaga University, shared Mass and dinner with the seminarians of the diocese, celebrated Mass with the students and faculty at St. Patrick School, stopped by Cataldo School and St. Anne Children and Family Center, had dinner with the diocese’s Guatemala Commission, visited the Sacred Heart Mission Room at Providence Sacred Heart Hospital, toured the House of Charity, celebrated Mass and attended a meeting and dinner at Our Lady of Fatima Parish, celebrated Mass at St. Augustine Parish, and did the same at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes.

On Sunday afternoon, Feb. 8, at the cathedral, Bishop de Villa and Bishop Skylstad launched the 50th anniversary of the two dioceses’ sister-relationship. Bishop de Villa gave a talk on present conditions in Sololá and the future of the Spokane Diocese’s mission there. On Monday morning, Feb. 9, Bishop de Villa departed Spokane.

In a brief interview on Friday morning, Feb. 6, following Mass with the children and faculty of St. Patrick School, Bishop de Villa spoke about himself and conditions in his diocese in Guatemala. The bishop appeared energized and happy following the Mass and his extended homily time interaction with the children from the school, during which he happily answered numerous questions. He told the children that Jesus “likes children, he loves children – even naughty children!” He also said that when he celebrates Mass in parishes in his home diocese, often many children will accompany him for the entrance procession, and one child will hold each of his 10 fingers as they process to the altar.

Obviously vigorous in early middle age, with a full head of gray hair, Bishop de Villa smiled broadly and often while speaking in fluent English about himself and his diocese, while sipping from a cup of coffee. He was born in Spain, he said, but his family moved to Guatemala when he was eight years old. “My father was a lawyer,” Bishop da Villa said, “and he was not doing that well, economically, at the time. He met this guy from Guatemala....”

The future priest and bishop entered the Society of Jesus in 1974 after two years at Landivar University, a Jesuit institution in Guatemala City. “Then later,” he said, “I was appointed the president of the university, for six years before I became a bishop.”

Most of Bishop de Villa’s Jesuit formation took place at various locations in Latin America, but he did his doctoral studies, in Political Science, in Canada. “That’s where my English comes from,” he said.

He was ordained a priest in 1983, in Panama, then returned to Guatemala where, within a few years, he was assigned to Landivar University, where he taught Philosophy in the seminary. After completing his doctoral studies in Canada in 1989, he returned to Guatemala and founded an institute for social research. “I’m a political scientist,” Bishop de Villa said, “I’m not a theologian, or a canonist, or a Scripture scholar, nothing like that, so who knows, why they chose me a bishop I have no idea.”

The future bishop resumed teaching in the seminary and working in the institute for social research. The war was going on in Guatemala at the time, and Father de Villa ended up assisting the cardinal bishop who was mediating between the various groups which were in conflict. “I started being a part of this,” he said, “and saying that the war wasn’t something rational, and we have to promote dialogue. This wasn’t going to have a military solution at all. Then in ’94 I went to the university and took an administrative post. I was the dean of the faculty of Social Sciences.”

Father de Villa was elected president of Landivar University in 1998, a position he held until he was named an auxiliary bishop of Guatemala City in 2004. In 2006, he was elected the General Secretary of the regional bishops’ conference. Then he was named bishop of Sololá-Chimaltenango in 2007.

He admits that it was something of a challenge to move from living in a Jesuit community to living in a household with diocesan priests. “On the other hand, now that I am in Sololá I am living in a community. There are four priests living in the house, and two (transitional) deacons. In some ways I have an even stronger community life than when I was living with Jesuits. When I arrived I was very well received.”

At present, the Diocese of Sololá-Chimaltenango has 65 diocesan priests who serve 32 parishes, some of which geographically are quite large. Those priests are assisted by several priests from the United States, including Father David Baronti of the Spokane Diocese. “My experience is that you have to think twice before you divide a parish,” Bishop de Villa said. “Many of my priests are very young,” Bishop de Villa said. “More than half of them were ordained in this century. It’s also good for a young priest to not be on his own, so there are two or three to attend a large parish, and they can live together.”

Today, his diocese has 70 seminarians, a boom in vocations to the priesthood. Next month he will ordain eight priests, as well as 11 deacons who are completing their priestly formation. “We have almost no permanent deacons – some, but very, very few,” he said.

Bishop de Villa observed that 50 years ago, when his diocese was first created, it was “very important” to have a relationship with the Diocese of Spokane. “The first bishop faced the challenge that there were enormous territories and no priests, so he started looking for priests all over,” said the bishop. “Spokane was one of the American dioceses” that responded to Guatemala’s need for priests, as did dioceses in Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Montana.

Today, Bishop de Villa describes Guatemala as “a society in transition. Ninety percent of the population is indigenous, they are all coming from traditions, and languages, and customs of their own that were kept in so many ways for many centuries. But now we are in an enormous and very quick transition. I suppose the main reason for this is that now children go to schools, and parents value education as something important for their children. That is changing everything. That’s the story of this country (i.e. the U.S.), too.”

People who visited Guatemala 40 years ago remember a place that was very primitive, he said. “But things are changing a lot. Everybody will have a cell phone, and the houses are changing. Many people continue being very poor, but there is a change. The number of cars, and phones, and computers is up. You can still find isolated places where life continues to be very primitive, but they are less.”

In past years, relations between the church and the civil authorities in Guatemala were not good. But things have changed there, too, Bishop de Villa said. “It’s better in the sense that the central government doesn’t have any problems with the church. We are on our own fields. We don’t mix that much, but we are respectful of each other. In terms of local authorities, in some places there are better relations; in others, they are a bit more tense. I suppose that the life of the church has much more to do with people than with government. We don’t fight government, and the government doesn’t fight us.”

He sees two main challenges as he looks toward his diocese’s future.

“One,” he said, “is the issue of having enough manpower to have all the parishes attended. That’s something that I’m hopeful that we will manage. On the other hand, I suppose that our seminarians and our priests have to face that most of them are coming from rural areas, and they will serve in rural areas, but we have to face the fact that they have not been exposed to sophisticated environments, whereas some of their parishioners have.

“The second thing is that there are lots of traditions that are there. I’m not an enemy of any of them in themselves, but the challenge for every priest is the preaching of the Gospel, now, in our culture, concerning the problems our people are facing now. That means migration, that means poverty, that means the challenge of people who are better educated.”

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