PASTORAL VISIT TO SAN MIGUEL, TOTONICAPAN
Father John Chakos
The Orthodox Church in Guatemala belongs to the indigenous people. They are the Mayans who were conquered by the Spaniards 500 years ago, but who continue to live proudly and nobly in accordance with the customs and traditions of their storied past. The first language that they speak is that of their tribe, then the common language of Guatemala -- Spanish. Because they have honored and adhered to their heritage in this unique, and at times defensive way, the morally corrosive effects of Western civilization have not as of yet replaced the values of their beautiful way of life. So when St. Paul, echoing the sentiments of Isaiah, exclaims: "How beautiful are the feet of of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things" (Romans 9: 15), we could add, as beautiful as the people who receive the message with a pure heart. Such was our experience with the people of the two small villages of San Miguel in TOTONECAPAN. The signs of welcome were not only on balloons and banners, but in
their welcoming smiles and reverent kneeling to kiss our priestly hands. "They make us feel our priesthood and how unworthy we are of their love," a tearful Fr. Andres remarked.
These two small clusters of families of the people of San Miguel were not unknown to us, even though we were visiting one of the groups for the first time. Traditionalists to the core, they had rejected the innovations of Vatican Two many years ago. They refused to use instruments in their worship or encourage the clapping of hands when chanting their simple, but pious hymns. On more than one occasion they traveled en masse (men, women and children) five hours in the morning over unpaved mountain roads to reach our seminary for confession and the Divine Liturgy. Decked out in their native dress and arriving early in the morning, they were a sight, not only to behold, but to admire. Holy Communion was only received on bended knee. In addition to their extreme reverence for the priesthood and sacraments, they tithed the produce from their farms to the church.
The experience of worshipping with them in their small block churches made of baked mud and clay defies description. These are the cathedrals of the poor, every bit as magnificent as the hallowed shrines of Orthodoxy in the great centers of the world. What a great mystery our faith contains. In the least likely places the bliss of paradise opens itself up to the humble of heart. On the day of our visit to the second parish, we crismated 37 people, but not before hearing many confessions, a unique and intimate pastoral encounter. As shy and reserved as the women are, adhering to the custom of not eating with nor serving food to visiting men, the floodgates of emotion poured out as they whispered their sins into our attentive ears.That which gave further substance to our already favorable impression of these pious people was the genuine warmth of their hospitality. In addition to sharing with us the simple fare of their diet, they gave up their beds to five men, treating us as members of their family. The children, of which there were many, flocked around us, strangers though we were. They, together with their mothers, were mesmerized by my iPad. They asked me to replay, again and again, the parts of the church service that I had videoed earlier in the afternoon. After loading up our pick-up truck with produce and a live chicken, we spent at least an hour taking pictures and trying to say good-bye. The good people didn't want us to leave.
The children gather around Fr. Andres.
Orthodox Church communities like this exist all over Guatemala. New communities are being added to the fold every month, despite the disdain of the Roman Catholic Church, which challenges the authenticity of the Orthodox sacraments. Because of pastoral visits like this in places where other churches have not gone or will not go, Orthodoxy continues to grow. They come, not one or two persons at a time, but whole communities, guided by their elders into the loving care of Fr. Andres, a leader in the agrarian reform movement that has greatly benefited the indigenous population. As beautiful as those are who preach the gospel of peace, even more beautiful are the humble folk who receive it with love and purity of soul. These are the real treasures of the Orthodox Church in Guatemala. The sound of their voices fill the heavens from their cathedrals made of mud and clay.