Hundreds of men, women and children gathered on June 14 in Los Jengibres, a small village in the Dominican Republic to celebrate their faith. They had arrived by the truck load to meet Bishop Jose Grullon Estrella of the Diocese of San Juan de la Maguana, the Diocese of Orlando’s sister diocese. During the day-long event, Bishop Estrella celebrated Mass and conferred the Sacrament of Confirmation upon 80 teens and distributed the Sacrament of First Holy Communion to 12 children.
Because many of the villages of the Diocese of San Juan de la Maguana are spread out throughout the mountainside, the bishop visits one village in a region, and the people of the surrounding communities travel in the beds of pickup trucks to see him and receive their Sacraments, Father Ruse said.
Like any pastor, Father Ruse cares for the souls of his people as they journey in faith towards a relationship with Jesus Christ, centered in the Sacraments. But unlike most pastors, Father Ruse’s people are miles apart in nine communities over a rocky mountain range. As the only priest serving the area, meeting with catechists may mean travelling to villages only accessible by donkey or motorbike, assuming the rains haven’t damaged the roads. In the Diocese of Orlando there are countless books, resources and religious education programs to help guide the people in sacramental preparation. In the Diocese of San Juan de la Maguana many of the catechists and students are not even able to read.
“The level of skill among catechists is different in each community, not to mention the level of educational background on their part and on the part of the children,” he said. “Each community has a catechist or more than one. Some can’t read or write. I place a lot of emphasis on the first and primary experience of catechesis: the celebration of the Eucharist or the Word.”
Despite these challenges, Father Ruse is able to empower and inspire the volunteer catechists and encourage the communities to pray for their youth preparing to receive Jesus in the Sacraments. This year, the presence of long-term missionary Cory Cassanova with Catholic Volunteers in Florida, allowed the children from the different villages to come together for a daylong retreat.
“I am so grateful to people like Cory who did a wonderful retreat with them,” Father Ruse said. “We had all 80 (Confirmandi) come to Los Frios to meet. Then on another Saturday they all came back and I celebrated the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Of course, each setting is prime time to do further catechesis at the most elementary level.”
Father Ruse held rehearsals with each of the communities so they would know what to expect when they were before the bishop. In past years, the Mass would have been held inside the chapel at Los Jengibres, but several years ago it was accidently knocked down by a bulldozer. Construction of a new chapel has been underway since but the building still lacks a roof, doors and windows.
Instead the celebration took place outside the village’s public school in an area covered by tarps. Father Ruse met with district leadership to prepare for the bishop’s visit and arrange the layout of the space. Rows of plastic chairs were set on the dirt floor facing the folding table that served for an altar. The simple exterior setting had no effect on the interior joy of the people. “Just look at their faces,” said Father Ruse. “It was wonderful, as always.”
“Perhaps most important is that these moments are moments to celebrate our connection to Jesus as part of his Body and to those within the community,” Father Ruse continued. “And, what more need be done? They know they belong to God and that we, in his name, take care of each other.”