Fr. Tim Conlan is a priest I know who is a missionary in Rabinal. He works in the oldest church in Central America, built by Bartholomew de las Casas, a Dominican priest who was famous for his defense of the native peoples of the America and his opposition to slavery. De las Casas went back to Spain for a while and obtained laws stopping the slave trade from the King --orders often ignored. Fr. Conlan, like De las Casas, is a Dominican, and is dedicated to the people he serves. I get emails from time to time from Fr. Tim and I have one to share with you. I hope you can help his work.
Dear Friends, As we approach a new liturgical year of 2011 and prepare for the coming of the Lord of Life this Christmas, I greet you from Rabinal, Guatemala with news and reflection. It has been over six months since I last sent out a letter. As always I wish to thank all of your for your prayers and support and assure you that you are in my thoughts. Life is full of choices. May you be full of life. Peace to you. Fr. Tim Conlan
Leaping the Wall
The wall of our farthest dream
Is the wall we must dare to leap.
We dream by night, but it is in the day that we must leap.
Our horizon is behind us in the hopes of our parents.
It is before us in the heights we have known,
But it is really only within us
When we set no limits on the goal we can reach.
The Mayan youth in the villages dream to leave
And only return with pockets full of money,
Loaded down with gifts and tales to tell,
Exotic persons from far away lands,
Or laden with titles and degrees,
To show that they are worthy of respect.
Yet that comes not with money or degrees.
The paths to the simple homes wind up and down the hills.
No gates close off the entry way to the patios.
No locks on the doors, only the snarling dogs
Keep out those who do not have the password--
“Maria, purissima, to which the response from within is,
“Concebida sin pecado original”.
Translated “Mary, purest”, “Conceived without original sin”.
Each family is an open book,
Rooms filled with beds where life is shared.
Intimacy is at a premium in the farthest corners.
Privacy is a concept reserved for property.
Life is in common and you must learn to make room
For the uncommon ways of each one.
Walls are foreign to the village and to the home.
Yet the first thing we dream of is putting up walls,With the idea of protecting what we valueAnd gaining so much that everyone would envy us,Separating us from others who have less or nothing.This is the wall that success often builds.It is a wall within our minds, and countries build these walls.They are the cultures that define what is proper or foreign.There was a high wall that fellFrom the force of the murmurs Of a daring dream to be freeIt fell in Germany, where before,Other walls and fences with barbed wireCircled the victims of hatred in the camps of holocaust.And these fell too, but rose again with new vigor.Always the product of fear of too much freedom.Now new walls ariseOn the border of the country that is most freeWith new guards and new ideas about freedomFreedom to buy and to sell,Free trade for productsFree access to information on the InternetBut the walls show there is fearOf that army of workers who want freedom to work.The greatest wall is the wall of being content.We erect a wall of self satisfaction and stay behind itnot looking for the next possible rung to scale.It is the wall of not imagining what is on the other sideOf our blindness or contentedness.We are prisoners of our lack of curiosity and hope.Let us tear down these walls and prepare to leap for joyUp and over the horizon, and the dream to be freeAt the coming of the New Day of the Birth of the Saviour.Dear Friends of the Mission in Rabinal,As they say everything constantly changes, but things stay the same. So it is with me, as we are on the eve of Advent 2011. I have been in the process of changing my work, but am still in the same place in Rabinal, Guatemala. I live in my same room in the parish house and enjoy the company of the two diocesan priests who are ministering in the parish. One year exactly has passed since they have taken over and I can say that it has been delightful to live in the rectory with them. I am dedicating more time to my educational programs and only helping in the pastoral ministry on a limited basis. This last week for example they went on retreat so I was in charge of the parish for five days, and in December one priest will be on vacation so they are expecting me to fill in. Mainly, I am working on the project of the translation of the Sunday readings into the Mayan language and hope to publish the book in the next couple of months which is one of the projects that I had promised to do as of a year ago. So as you can see things move slowly here, but there simply are not many people who can help me on that type of work, so it depends on their time, but we have made progress. I only pray I can finish it soon and hope you join me in that prayer. I can tell you that the new parish priests are slowly or not so slowly transforming all the facilities into a different type of parish, but it seems to be working very well, so I see good things happening and do not feel that what we had worked for has been lost.Life in RabinalLet me just share a recent experience that perhaps will give you an idea of what life is like here. I think that often times we want the big picture, but if you don’t get down to the details, you can’t understand the larger reality. It concerns one of my students on scholarship who is studying in the town of Coban, about 3 hours from Rabinal. This boy is 17 years old and is an excellent student, going into the last of the three year bachelor program in a computer school which is on the level of junior college, so I hope he will be able to get into the university in engineering which is what he wants. Well, he comes from a small village up at the 6,000 foot level in Rabinal and his father has had to work in town or at times the capital at security jobs to support his family of 8 children. His mother is a small and very beautiful woman, well, she was all that, but she just died of cancer this last week at the age of 37 years old. The boy is the oldest of the children. The father had asked me to go up to the village to pray with her, but a few days later, when I got organized to go up there, I called ahead to a catechist and he informed me that she had been moved to the next town 40 minutes away by car in order to receive the attention of a prayer man or curandero.I mention all this because sometimes people in the USA don’t understand how all these different types of customs fit into the Catholic faith. These people are Catholics and in the close family there are members who are charismatics. But on the other hand there are the Catholic prayer men who are also part of the Mayan tradition and who use lots of candles and incense and make up medicines of herbs and do all kinds of rituals to heal and drive out bad spirits. I suppose the prayer man was both charismatic and traditional at once. Of course, by that time she was in a lot of pain, but they reported that she felt better. All of that is a sign of great faith in God and love for the sick person. I was in touch with the boy in his school and he was saying the people in the village did not believe it was cancer, but some evil spirit. So you say this is all very confusing. Not really. We who come from the western culture have an absolute faith in the science of medicine and we expect it can save us from all kinds of things, so we are willing to submit ourselves to all the treatment which offers even the slightest hope because we trust the people who offer it. And the reason is that we are taught to all the means available to struggle for things that have value, such as life. This faith in the science of medicine is similar to the faith of the Mayan people in the art of the curanderos and their rituals. Before the western medicine came, the medicine of the curandero was all there was so it still has roots and it comes together with ritual prayers. And part of that faith in Mayan prayer men comes from the fact that the treatments of modern medicine are more costly and beyond the reach of all but a few indigenous people, and uneducated people do not trust the professional people who have a different world outlook and speak at times in incomprehensive technical terms.Now this family also has some understanding of modern medicine so the woman was taken to the cancer hospital in the capital and after examinations she was sent home and the husband told me that the doctors had said the sickness was in various parts of her body and they had no treatment for it. So I checked with the hospital since I have helped people at that hospital and knew a social worker who pulled out the file and confirmed that there was nothing they could do for her.While this was going on, I was quite concerned for the father who called me occasionally. I kept my own prayer vigil remembering this woman each day in my Mass and generally concerned about the pain that she and the family were experiencing. It is a helpless feeling, and one that really only prayer can address. In these days before Advent the church is reflecting on the coming of the Lord in the end time and we all know that that comes for each of us in our death, some sooner and some later.In the end the woman came home again and they advised me, so I went up to anoint her and she could talk a bit and seemed at peace. I had actually only met this woman once as I recall and she was so simple and sweet, with a lovely smile, but after a month of thinking about her daily, I felt like we had been communicating regularly. The family where she was staying gathered around her bed. It was her sister’s house in a neighboring village to her own, where her brother-in-law is a catechist. You must understand it was a simple house of adobe with a dirt floor as are all these houses in the villages. Her 8 children were at home being cared for by the grandmother. She died the day after I saw her. The mother talked a few words to me the other day and so I thought she might not be so close to the end, but it often happens that the sick person waits for the priest and then they feel like they can leave.For these mountain people the priest is a figure who carries great significance. He is the one who has the key to the great mystery of death. He opens the door to life beyond. There is no fear here. It is home coming, pure hope. The life line that pulls us up to the new life. The priest is always welcomed with great warmth and kindness, as someone who brings peace and hope. So as people of a grand tradition they use all their resources human and divine, and the priest is one more of those. In all these means there is always hope because in the end there is the one thing that cannot fail, pure faith.Now I mention all this so you understand that my role as a priest is to minister where there is faith in Jesus and one needs to be quite aware there are many different levels of faith. Jesus does not exclude the other levels or condemn people for looking for cures in rituals outside the church. Here the prayer men are Catholic and invoke the Trinity and all the saints. God works through others just as Jesus himself became man, or as doctors have studied their art, so too the prayer man. My role as priest is to offer with love the prayer of Christ and ask that he help people discern with wisdom how to help the sick person. The simple ritual of the church is so succinct that it appears effortless and we are not working up a sweat doing it, but the faith is like that. It is joyful abandonment into the arms of God. It does not depend on the multiplication of words or actions. It is a risky affair to believe in Jesus as healer. God doesn’t need to warm up like a pitcher to throw a ball. He just throws it. So now there is a youth who will have to assume a new role in the family. I told him his 100 hours of service while on vacation this year is to spend time to be a good brother to his 7 younger siblings and to support his father. After the death of the mother, the father had given up his job as a security guard, and owed someone money for the casket and fiesta of the 9th day, so he took his son and three younger brothers to the coast to pick coffee for two weeks before Christmas. There they can make $5 6o $6 a day and maybe up to $10 if they work very hard. Maybe this history helps you see what life is like here.My New RoleSo you ask what have I been doing to earn my keep? First of all at the start of last year we trimmed the staff in my program from 4 half time persons and myself as director to just one half time person and me, with the idea that we would reduce our programs and not take on new students, since I was uncertain where I would be in the future. Last year there was a woman administrator and another woman was the investigator who produced the CD on universities, so I kept that person on this year, but made her the administrator so we have all her talents in two roles.The big change is that this year I am in the office a bit more and have some time to reflect on the quality of what we are doing, not like before when I could only give superficial attention to details since I was simply stretched too much with all the pastoral duties. So the atmosphere has changed for me. I have a more personal relationship with the youths who are on scholarship and have been trying to develop a way to engage them in dialogue and reflection.First of all in previous years we had up to 200 youths receiving help in all the programs, but only 25 who received the full scholarships for various years. We always have announced the opportunities on radio so 100’s of youths are helped even though we do not see it. I had good people working in the office and occasionally I would direct them to make sure they were spending time with the youths to find out how things were going and also to be in dialogue with their parents, but I could never evaluate it in more than a superficial way. I just trusted that the staff did so, but actually the students are so busy and some live so far away that they hardly have time to sit and talk, so it can easily become sort of a filling station approach. They come to turn in receipts or give in their grades and it is just human nature that it can get reduced to the most practical level because on that level the staff is being monitored. It comes down to keeping accounts and having receipts etc. since that is where the pressure is.So I pondered this in the spare room in my mind to see what might serve me in that pursuit. It happened that about a year ago I visited a parish program near Lake Atitlan, where a couple of American nurses were volunteering, and I explained I had a couple of young girls who wanted to be doctors and I was interested in helping them understand that career. The nurses gave me the names of a few movies of a popular sort on the field of medicine, which I was able to acquire. So I showed the two girls about 6 movies before they left to study, and we had some good discussions about the social and moral aspects of their field.The dialogue that followed the movies was not easy at first until they began to see that I really wanted them to give their own opinions, and finally we established a mutual trust after the course of six movies. It was a definite breakthrough in our communication. So that was my seminal idea about movies being an instrument to comment about a lot of values. Since then I have been investigating movies and have used about 8 more movies with a group of 8 other youths on scholarship who live in town. We have watched Iranian, Chinese, Indian and of course, American movies. These have all been very instructive.New ProgramsThis year we have developed two new workshops that we have put on for the directors of the junior colleges and high schools of Rabinal. One is about how to help students discern the career that best suits them with all the materials that might be needed. The other is how to apply for a state scholarship to various universities in a new program that began just this year. I feel we are right on the cutting edge of helping the education system deal with the changing situation. This was a monumental effort on the part of the one woman who is my office worker. She earned her pay this year just with those workshops plus all the other things I ask of her. Perhaps you are wondering what kind of junior colleges there are in a small town of 7,000 people and in an area of 32, 000 people total in our municipal area of 38 villages. Well, they are private schools that give degrees of a practical sort and most of them are on a very low level. Perhaps 20% of families can afford these schools, the rest of the youth join the army, go to work in factories, do manual labor locally or go to the USA. Wonder of wonders, this year a new program of the state began which offers scholarships for youths in various universities if they maintain 70% grade point. We were able to catch the wave and so we helped 22 youths apply in a 6 month period. We do not administer the money or receive anything for our help to the students except the satisfaction of having helped them to continue their study. This year 2010 we will graduate 7 students and have a little fiesta as always in the first days of December. The graduates this year are two accountants, two primary grade teachers, one mechanic, one laboratory technician, and one computer programmer. This last year 5 students were in the university. At present four of our students are doing a 100 hours of service in Rabinal in other institutions during vacations. 5 did their service during the year. New Students for 2011 In spite of our efforts not to add new students this year we ended up taking 4 new students, who will live outside Rabinal so it is a big cost. It is complicated to explain why our efforts to downsize did not turn out as we had planned. It is just so hard to take the final curtain call. We decided to keep the office open this next year 2011 since we have 9 people who will graduate in 2011 and the committee that helps me monitor the money would have a hard time managing about 20 students that still remain on our roll call. So the office worker will continue to work on all our programs this next year. After next year we will be down to 10 so it is more manageable by a committee. By 2015 the last ones will graduate if all goes well. They will be two woman doctors and an engineer in computation.New IdeasAs I said I have been developing plans to interact more with the students on discernment of their vocations. You have no idea how little the students understand about university or careers. These students come from little villages and their parents have never gone beyond 1st or 2nd grade grammar school and so when they finish high school no one has talked to them about what is ahead. They only know the practical schools in Rabinal and do not understand what prerequisites are needed in order to prepare for the university in some field. So I developed a program to dialogue with them about career choices. You know my program is tiny in comparison to the needs.You will have a hard time believing it but this year we gave the sacrament of confirmation to almost 1000 youths who are 15 to 16 years old here in our parish and of those I can only help a hand full with my little office, but the point of my program is not how many I can help but being sure we are really helping. Most of the youth are as poor as the boy I wrote about at first, so you can imagine how many youths need help. They have no books in their houses and the school does not offer more than a few texts, so all their time is taken just taking notes, as a result it is very difficult to advance. They need remedial work. |Maybe I can make it more clear with an example. You know here in Guatemala in the area of the Petén out in the lowlands on the Caribbean coast they discovered the biggest archeological ruin so far call Miraflores, with the ruins of pyramids that supposedly tower above Tikal and probably were taller than the great ones of Mexico. At that site they found great works of art that will revolutionize the understanding of the Mayans, but to do so they had to work for a few years to unearth the area until they hit pay dirt with the recent discoveries and still it is hard to get into the area of see it all. It may be another year or more before it can be organized. It is like that with our students. 500 years of oppression and poverty has left them buried in the tomb of not having hope to rise up; it takes lots of encouragement and help for them to dream beyond the lowly horizon of their own village and family. Art is in. Look at all the graffiti that the gang members scrawl on the sides of buildings. It is an attempt to claim territory, but where the children paint their pictures on the sides of their school or on walls, no one defaces it. Some of the art work by the gangs is very good. There are artists there. Look at all the tattoos they use to give themselves new names and identity. It is art. We need more art in our cities. We need to clean up the streets. Hold block parties with dancing which we often do here. Some of the gangs have great dancers. I have several movies about the gangs that explain their social relevance.This year I have one youth who is on scholarship with us at the National Institute of Plastic Arts in the capital. He is entering his 3rd and final year of the basic program. He just won the first prize here in Rabinal of a small contest sponsored by the Coffee Industry that has an office in town. So as part of his 100 hours of service I have him painting a couple of art works for my chapels. One is of St. Margaret of Scotland, Queen, who is patron saint of one chapel, dedicated to my Aunt Margaret Concannon who left some money for the chapel, and the other is of St. Cornelio, pope and martyr, who is the patron saint of another chapel, dedicated to the parish by the same name in Richmond, California which gave money for that chapel. I tried to enlarge the little pictures from the Internet to make a poster on vinyl but the image would not come out, nor the colors. So he is painting on canvas.And this year we will have a second student on scholarship who will begin studying in the same institute. The first young man is training him a bit now. This new youth has been carving and painting cedar wood masks of the personalities in the indigenous dances and seems to have some talent. There are so many artists in Rabinal and even more dancers. Many of the artists have died off and with them their art because no one wanted to pay a decent price to buy their carvings on the gourds that are famous here. The economy, my friend. It is part of everything. Hope springs eternal Well my little program is one of many programs that exist. The church has its share of them and the general society also. So many people are trying to save this corruption ridden society. One thing is certain, what is needed is holiness and wisdom to offer a remedy in whatever program. I have become aware that it is the quality of whatever we do that counts, not the quantity. We have to take the time and have the patience to do well every little bit we do. There are no short cuts. It is all a work of art meant to imitate the creator. It must be done with love. I feel overwhelmed and I am sure you do too with the magnitude of the problems. That is when we must invoke the Higher Power, God himself. So do me a favor and ask the Lord to guide me and you, so that together we may find that true path of enlightenment.Peace in the Lord.Fr. Tim Conlan.Any help you wish to give for these projects should be sent to the Dominican Mission Foundation 2506 Pine St. San Francisco, CA 94115If you just mention that it is for my work in Guatemala, they make sure it comes here or to the general fund if you wish, and they will send you a financial contribution statement at the year’s end if you wish. You can ask for the monthly newsletter at no cost. Sometimes I put in an article or two a year in that also, but nothing this long.