A child of the missions An interior gasp breaks forth from my heart. I had seen Albino’s pictures of Villa Salvador, Cenacolo’s mission in South America, but pictures can’t even remotely touch this reality. As we approach this appalling incarnation of the selfishness of mankind, my mind races with images of the convicting contrast of our abundance and excess in the United States. Hill after hill of brown sand are covered by lean-tos the size of many of our bathrooms, in fact, smaller than many. Who knows how many people are packed into those cramped and collapsing structures, made out of cardboard, pieces of broken particle board, cloth, woven straw, or tarps. Attached to each other, it seems that if one of them were to collapse, they all would. The flooring, dirt, is the same for all. No choices for decorating here. The roofs are tarp, or for those who have more means, some kind of metal. These, truly, are God’s vulnerable and unprotected children, who eek out an existence that is barely subsistence.
Layer after layer of crumbling dwellings, Villa Salvador or “Way of the Savior,” is home for thousands of Peru’s poor in this desert area of Lima. Full of squalor, without water or sewage, it is waterfront property, spreading for miles and miles along the magnificent Pacific coast, but only the desperate choose to buy land in this beach district. It all looks like an inconceivable, unbelievable personification of destitution and hopelessness, worse than Sartre’s No-Exit. Children and dogs play among the piles of rock and garbage that sprinkle the landscape.
A Tapestry of Dust and Dirt
At first, for the affluent eye, the streets are indistinguishable from the rest of the sand. It’s one big tapestry of dust and dirt. There aren’t any cars here. The closest is a three-wheel vehicle with a tiny motor that seems to serve as a taxi. It drops someone off and leaves, staying on the firmer sand, when it can. If not, people gather to push it. Other than that, everyone is walking. It’s obvious that everything is a struggle here–no, everything is about survival here–with no options for ease, comfort, or even the unconsidered, unnoticed, take-for-granted aspects of life that we so easily complain about, if they cause us inconvenience.
As we arrive at the mission house, Juan Pablo II, we’re greeted by the smiles and waves of some of God’s little ones, who have been playing in the dirt by the front door. They hug us, as though they had known us for years, and I can’t help wondering what their beautiful, black eyes have seen in their young lives. Our Sisters and the girls at the house give us a warm welcome, and before you know it, our dear Irish friend, Father Adrian arrives, too. Thanks to Father Adrian, we have the house in Ireland and, now, this house, too. He came to Peru three years ago, and after building a house in the midst of Villa Salvador for serving the poor, he asked Sister Elvira to bring Cenacolo here.
Corpus Christi Feast
Father Adrian tells us about the procession for Corpus Christi that night. He and Father Simon, a young, British priest who also pours out his life for the poor, will be processing with the Blessed Sacrament through all of Villa Salvador. And so it is. At 7:30 pm, we all walk up the hill on sandbags, stacked to serve as a makeshift sidewalk up the sandy hills, another of Father Adrian’s practical idea to help daily living for the people of the area. Carrying the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance, Father leads the procession of worship and love. The band of disciples is composed mostly of women, children, and teenagers. There are some men, not many. The teens, both boys and girls, play guitars and drums and lead the singing. I am happily surprised at how many teens there are. It’s the fruit of Father Adrian and Father Simon’s love. As we pass by, people come out to see what’s happening. Some look with wonderment; others look quizzically. A few jeer. Many people join us, and this humble group of worshipers grows in number. One young man and his two little brothers, playing on their roof, reverently kneel down as we pass by.
The Procession of Jesus
We plod through deep sand and around tons of rocks and garbage. We struggle to get up and down the sand terraces that have long ago given way to the forces of nature. It seems like something surrealistic. Father Adrian stops at bars with blaring music, tiny stores with barely anything on the shelves, and homes with almost nothing inside them. He blesses them all with the Most Holy Eucharist. Truly, this is Jesus, moving among His people, touching them and loving them, offering them His very self.
I feel like I’m walking with Jesus along the streets of Jerusalem, Bethsaida, Capernaum, and all the other towns where He walked, His heart pouring out His love, offering healing and life to each and every person He created. This simple gathering of Jesus’ followers adore Him in the Blessed Sacrament with simplicity and humility. Their trust is tested every day, at every moment, yet their songs are full of faith and joy: “Father, you are full of goodness. You are always faithful to us. We adore you and praise you. With you, we have everything.” Their strong faith, in the midst of these conditions of human contradiction, cut me to the heart. They don’t have the luxury to move in the pettiness that consumes so much of our thinking and feelings. They are just struggling to survive, yet they are such a gentle people, helpful and generous with the little they have. “Lord, make me faithful to you, like these your little ones. Forgive me for my selfishness and my blindness. Forgive me for being so full of myself.” Would I have faith if I lived like this? I doubt it. Only through His grace. I just can’t control my tears. They are such lovely people, full of smiles and kindness. I think to myself that I would probably be an angry cynic.
At the Church
After about an hour and a half, the procession reaches the partially built church Father Adrian is building for the area. He and Fr. Simon are the only priests for 36,000 people. The walls have the rebar sticking up from the blocks, but there is a little altar awaiting Our Lord Jesus.
The crowd gathers around the altar, and Father Adrian and Father Simon lead prayers of worship, praise, and thanksgiving. These are saintly men, obviously men of profound prayer. Without a deep prayer life, there is no way a priest can survive, much less maintain the gratitude, hope, and love that they transmit, amidst this overwhelming poverty. The hopelessness at the practical, human level would be overwhelming. These priests don’t get any days or nights off. Time is not their own. They are total servants in the vineyard of the Lord, “poured out like a libation.” The fruit is the faith that is spreading like wildfire among this destitute populace, some of whom have known nothing of the faith because there has been no one to teach them.
After an hour of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament on the rough, cement floor, Father Adrian blesses us all with Jesus. The people are full of joy, their warmth reaching out with beautiful smiles and hugs. “Thank you, Jesus, for the gift of this holy night among your precious poor. Help me to be like them.”