"WE KNOW you're suffering from claustrophobia, John, but isn't this a hit extreme?" In this way some friends greeted my decision to work as a priest in South America for six years.
I had entered the seminary at Upholland in Lancashire in 1960 at the age of 12. Year by year I moved my way around the four sides of the college quadrangle until at the age of 25 I found myself at the main entrance once again, a priest. Weeks later I was appointed to Skelmersdale, a couple of miles down the road. Eight and a half years later 1 kit for South America.
In "Skem" 1 learned to identify Christ in the
unemployed, the sick and the bereaved, the children and the youth, those in love and the deserted, the few pensioners. Of necessity 1 had discovered the need for Christ in my own life. The ideal image of the priest with which I had left the seminary quickly tarnished. I had to learn to live with in own poor performance.
I felt the need to move on. In terms of priesthood I had not arrived at anything as static as a modus rivendi, but after eight years I was beginning to achieve a level of competence and predictability that alarmed me. I did not fancy operating on cruise control until I was 70.
1 arrived in Bolivia for a language course of four and a half months. Overnight, any confidence and competence evaporated. I couldn't function as a priest, nor even as a human being. A trip to the Post Office to buy stamps required hours of rehearsal. Clutching the correct money, I returned emptyhanded: I had chickened out at the last minute. How on earth then was 1 to .preach the Gospel to a continent?
I vvas assigned to Chimbote, a desert shanty town of 400,000 inhabitants in northern Peru. My parish was only a few blocks In size, with 70,000 people living in shacks of straw matting, ood, cardboard boxes, and eventually — for the more enterprising — bricks lovingly collected and stored until they could afford the sand and cement.
Chimbote is a real 20th century phenomenon. The filth and pollution that only modern industry can produce combine with the worst aspects of the Third World: primitive housing, disease, malnutrition and death.
The Pan-American Highway which divides the parish, slaughters those who fall beneath the wheels of express buses and juggernauts. I witnessed deaths almost daily from my own front door. Nor did Chimbote benefit from the advantages that urban squalor brings for some: the "good life", labour-saving appliances, convenience foods. health, holidays. Having evolved a ministry sharing my own hang-ups with the inhabitants of North-West England, I was at a loss. My Spanish wasn't good enough to express these insights with any subtlety. They were irrelevant to the needs of these good people anyvkay.
II was a wise man who assured me of the advantages of arriving In South America without any Spanish: it effectivels minimises the damage a well-meaning and enthusiastic gringo missionary can inflict on a hapless population.
1 transferred to the mountains of Peru. Here the poseris was much worse but less distressing, maybe because the setting is more pastoral and picturesque. Huanearama is in Apurimac, one of the poorest departments In Peru. The change from urban squalor suited me. Huancarama suffers from all the deprivation of the Third World. The medical facilities and schools are appalling. But the people arc still in touch with their rich culture, their families and communities, their fiestas, their land, their animals, and their beautiful mountains.
To enter the area is to go back hundreds of years. We live at 10,000 feet. I travel frequently to 14,000 feet. The people, direct descendants of pre-Inca Indians, are subsistence farmers. Except in Huancarama itself (population 1,000), the people have little Spanish blood or influence. Their mud-brick, oneroom, dirt-floor dwellings perch on the mountain sides. They cultivate their potatoes (200 varieties here) in furrowed fields often 70 degrees or more from the horizontal.
Their precious possessions arc their animals: scrawny-looking cows vt, hose milk yield is insufficient for their calves; sheep and goats; hairy black pigs; higher up, llamas. The goats climb vertical surfaces without falling: I swear they have Velcro on their feet. The gospels speaks of the sheep and goats: they are always mixed together here, too.
It can take hours to travel to one of our villages. Frequently I am physically scared on the narrow paths along which I ride or walk or even scramble, using hands and feet. A trail six inches wide can open out into a grass plaza with its chapel, schoolroom and community building all in adobe brick and the most beautiful plant pot tiles.
Sometimes I wonder how the folk who converge to meet the Padre ever get there themselves. Then I realise that they didn't travel here at all, they were born here, and have lived in the same isolated valleys for thousands of years. Visitors arc rare. The padres are almost the only outsiders that they ever see.
The people are lovely. The women sit on the ground, the men stand. Their carriage is almost that of the trappist monk: hands out of sight under poncho, head slightly bent, staring unseeing into the middle distance as if in a choir stall. These are natural contemplatives.
The women, brightly dressed in purples, pinks, luminous greens and yellows, sit in clusters, their toddlers on the grass around them. The children are still. too. They rarely fidget. Their only movement is in the huge liquid brown eyes which Fasten on this weird stranger who always arrives in a burrs .
Why am I here? I still wonder; and yet some of my insights from Skelrnersdale have an enduring validity. The people here are as much in need of the love of God as the folk at home. Indeed, they must be loved more because of their poverty.
And yet, tragically, these same people see themselves as the playthings of an irritable deity. At best unpredictable, God has to be appeased and humoured. He causes famine and drought and pain. He's blamed for all misfortune. A drunken man falling to his death over a precipice is said to have suffered e/ castigo de Dios, God's punishment. So are the parents of an infant dying of diarrhoea and dehydration, especially if they have been living together without the blessing of the Church.
Al home, if we meet with human suffering, we are led to question the very existence of a loving God. Here, suffering does no more than confirm the existence of a God generally acknowledged to be a hard taskmaster. Preaching the love of God in such circumstances takes on a new relevance.
I am here because these people are poor and they have no priests. Either motive is compelling. I try to acompanar (share with, he with, support) these people in their poverty. There is a validity in just being here, alongside w hich ms modest attempts to improve their lot, especially in the areas of health and education, often seem only token.
Abuse all, however, I try to preach the love of God to an eminently lovable people.
Fr Devine, with fellow Catholics from his home, Skelmersdale and elsewhere, can be seen in Outside the Window , 1111C2 9.35prn on Saturday, November 23.
NEXT WEEK, Elizabeth Rano will begin a new preview and review TV and Radio column in the Catholic Herald.