St. Pius X Church in Cochabamba, Bolivia, is taking to heart Pope Francis’ call for parishes to become more missionary. With the help of the Maryknoll Missionary Center for Latin America (CMMAL), the parish is opening its doors to go out to parishioners to understand the challenges of their daily lives.
Three years ago, St. Pius X’s former pastor, Father Enrique Bustamante Ramírez, sought the support of the Missionary Center—based in Cochabamba—to accompany his parish in that process, which implies not only an option for the poor but also an option with the poor, says Tania Ávila, one of CMMAL’s mission educators. “The option ‘for’ the poor implies an asymmetric condition,” says Ávila. “The option ‘with’ the poor means placing oneself in the same space.” That is what CMMAL trains people to do.
Father Bustamante was one of the first priests of the Archdiocese of Cochabamba to attend the certificate program on Missionary Transformation of the Church that CMMAL offered in collaboration with the Pontifical Mission Societies and the support of the Bolivian Episcopal Conference in 2015.
“[The certificate program] was a founding experience for some 15 young priests, and has ratified my own missionary intuitions,” says Father Bustamante. “[I am] convinced that God is helping me to deepen my missionary vocation and at the same time deepen the missionary vocation of the faithful to whom God has entrusted me.”
After attending the certificate program, Father Bustamante asked CMMAL to help promote the missionary formation of his parish. To this end, CMMAL sent a team of laypeople and two Maryknoll priests, Fathers Paul Masson and Kenneth Moody, who serve in Bolivia, to support the pastoral plan for St. Pius X and its estimated 12,000 parishioners. In May 2016 the CMMAL team began giving monthly presentations to the parishioners on topics such as missionary discipleship and pastorally accompanying small parish groups.
“Father Bustamante’s request was the beginning of our collaboration in different communities,” says Maryknoll Father Alejandro Marina, director of CMMAL. He explains that CMMAL offers workshops and Cursillos to raise missionary awareness through the formation of pastoral agents throughout the Cochabamba Archdiocese.
When health issues forced Father Bustamante to leave St. Pius X parish last year, the new pastor, Father Lázaro Torrico, said he planned to continue collaborating with CMMAL. Through this partnership, catechists receive formation as missionaries and participate in the development of catechetical themes that enable youth to recognize their missionary identity and get involved in addressing the challenges the parish faces, including poverty and drug addiction among minors.
St. Pius X’s plan also includes providing pastoral support to other parishes, aiding people who are disabled, forming small missionary communities, and visiting jungle and highland areas to offer pastoral services to indigenous communities.
Father Masson, who previously served in mission in Chile and on the U.S./Mexico border, lives in St. Pius X parish and serves as the spiritual guide for one of the parish’s small communities, each made up of 15 to 20 parishioners. “My idea is to live in the neighborhood and accompany the communities, and also to find opportunities for the Maryknoll society candidates in formation as priests and brothers to support the programs in this area as part of their mission experience,” says Father Masson.
For the Pennsylvania-born missioner, understanding what a missionary parish means requires knowing the reality and context of the parish and constantly listening to its parishioners.
“Here, in Cochabamba, there is a mixture of thoughts and spiritual practices: Andean spirituality, the Pachamama, the spirituality of the Spanish colonizers, the Charismatic Movement, the influence of the Second Vatican Council and the Latin American Conferences from Medellín to Aparecida,” says Father Masson.
“There are some parishioners, like Sandra Mérida, who minister to people of great need. She is doing missionary work with children who work in the cemetery and their families. Some children are cleferos (children who sniff glue to get high) who live on the hill next to the cemetery. For me, it’s a sign of what can be done.”
Mérida has been a parishioner of St. Pius since she was a child. Her work with the children began in 2003 when, she says, she went to the cemetery to visit her father’s grave and met religious sisters who invited her to volunteer in the ministry they had with children and youth at the cemetery.
At first, Mérida thought she would not be able to understand or control these children, who were very poor and had little education. “But I had a sign in my dreams from the Virgin of Guadalupe asking me to take care of her children,” says Mérida. “Children need to trust someone, feel protected and have someone who listens to them so they can vent their problems.” She learned to read their gestures and looks and to understand their need for love. Her ministry includes helping to improve the hygiene of the children and prepare them to receive the sacraments of baptism, first Communion and confirmation.
When Mérida met the Maryknoll missioners, her understanding of mission expanded. “Fathers Pablo (Masson) and Juancho (Moody) have helped us to understand that each one of us is called to be a missioner,” says Mérida. “For me, mission is to meet the needy, not to judge, and entering the world of each person. I thank God and the Virgin of Guadalupe for giving me signs of carrying out the mission entrusted to me.”
Featured Image: St. Pius X Church in Cochabamba is following its missionary call. (Courtesy of St. Pius X Church/Bolivia)