Monday, June 22, 2009

Our first religious pilgrimage in Guatemala

Two weekends ago, PROBIGUA organized a trip to the major pilgrimage site in Central America. They arranged the trip specifically for the seminarians (I guess they thought that they had a captive audience). We left early on Saturday morning in PROBIGUA's "Bibliobus" (their mobile book-mobile) for the 5-6 hour journey. On the other side of the capital city, the temperature quickly rose and anyone who thought that this pilgrimage wouldn't involve suffering was quickly corrected. Our driver was obviously very comfortable driving the bus and very comfortable with the Guatemalan "customs" of the road (they aren't really rules, because I doubt that they are written down) and so we made the trip in 5 hours. We were greeted by a guy who was more than happy to give us a great price for what turned out to be pretty nice hotel rooms for the night, considering the cost (literally about $5.25 per person for one night), and we quickly got settled in. Esquipulas is a tourist town, but for Central Americans, not westerners. It was a much different feel there because we were obviously the only gringos in town. We got a lot more looks from people, but, interestingly enough, they didn't seem to bother us any more than we are bothered in Antigua. After dropping our stuff in the hotel we decided to head over to the Basilica to check it out briefly before grabbing some lunch. Much to the delight of the seminarians (and the American priest who was with us), they were just preparing to begin a daily mass (btw, where in the States can you find a daily mass at 12:30 p.m. on a Saturday?). Most of us stayed for mass (there were a couple of non-seminarians/clergy traveling with us). After every mass, the Benedictines that care for the Basilica have people line up outside of the church to offer them blessings and to bless religious objects that they wish to consecrate as a remembrance of their pilgrimage. After receiving our blessings, we stopped for lunch. A few of us were surprised to find out that not every restaurant in Guatemala knows how to prepare a decent hamburger and so some left lunch still a little hungry. After lunch we walked to the other side of the city where there was a smaller parish with a beautiful little church. They were having Eucharistic adoration when we arrived and we, again, enjoyed some time in prayer. We returned to the Basillica in order to connect with a friend of Rigoberto (the director of PROBIGUA), who is a priest in residence at the Basilica. After meeting with him to determine which mass would be best for us to come to on Sunday (they were celebrating their Corpus Christi feast that Sunday), we went back into the Basilica to visit the shrine of the "Cristo Negro" or "Black Christ." My understanding is that this shrine is important because it was the first shrine set up specifically for the native people of Central America. Those who setup the shrine did so with an image of Christ crucified whose skin color was close to that of the native population. This was intended to give them a sense of connectedness to Christ. As with many popular devotional images, the Christ image here became even darker after years of votive candles burned near it, leaving their soot on the image. Thus the image is now known simply as the "Black Christ" and it continues to be a popular yearly pilgrimage site for Central Americans. The curators of the Basilica created a path behind the sanctuary for the devoted to enter and pray with the image throughout the day without interrupting any of the liturgies being performed in the church. One unique aspect of Latin American devotion that I've noticed so far is that they never turn their back to the physical place where they just directed their prayers. This means that they walk backwards away out of the Blessed Sacrament chapel and from devotional images where they have left their intentions for the intercession of one of the saints. Thus, as we walked up to the Cristo Negro, there were people walking backwards down the long path away from it, having left their prayers and requests for help/healing at the foot of the cross. Each of us in the group then took our turns leaving prayers and intentions at the foot of the Cristo Negro. Some of us followed the model of the locals and walked backwards away from the icon so as not to turn our backs on it. We left our prayers there with thanks, trusting that God never fails to answer prayers. We rested a little before dinner and had a nice relaxing evening. The next morning we celebrated mass in the Basilica with Rigoberto's former classmate as the main celebrant. They allowed the seminarians to sit "in choir" (for those who know what that means), which was actually behind the altar in the sanctuary of the church. After mass, we checked out of the hotel, grabbed some lunch and "set sail" back to Antigua.

Reflecting on the trip I realized that religious devotion here is somewhat different than I am used to in the U.S. Here, there seems to be little room for silence in prayer. Even during Eucharistic adoration, the faithful seem to be continuously praying either a rosary, a litany, or a novena of some kind. It has been a little frustrating for me, because a large part of my spirituality focuses on simply sitting in silence in front of the Blessed Sacrament. I had hoped that traveling to this pilgrimage site I would find an a greater respect for silence in prayer. I didn't find it there, however. I won't say that I was disappointed, just that I didn't find it. This has been a good experience for me, though, and has definitely opened my eyes to some things I have to consider when ministering to Latin Americans who have migrated to the States, and so it was definitely fruitful. We suffered a little, like you should on any pilgrimage, but returned safe and sound (gracias a Dios!). Stay tuned for more updates soon. Thanks for your prayers!

(to see the whole album, click here)

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