By Father Fred Ruse
The word is “incredible”! It was “Spirit-birthed”!
I have just returned from the Lenten Leadership Retreat with our faith community leaders here in our district (Los Frios). We started the retreat Friday, leaving the mountains by flatbed truck – in terrible heat and dust. In Guanito a bus met us and we continued to the capital (actually a place close to the capital) where the Jesuit retreat center, Manresa Loyola, is located. It sits on the edge of the sea, atop a very high precipice, surrounded by a very busy industrial area – cargo being delivered from all parts of the country and items that have been off-loaded from arriving barges/boats. But, once you enter the retreat compound, it is as if none of that exists. The grounds are immaculate; the facilities are enormous and clean and fresh and surrounded by immense stands of coconut palms. There is an expansive area between the main building and the sea where you come across the Jesuit cemetery and lots of open, shaded property.
Our mountain folks were enthralled! They were glued to the vista, many times watching small boats go out with a small crew letting out a fishing net and then returning to the shore.
This morning we all gathered next to the cemetery to pray the rosary at 7 a.m. There was no such thing as “Dominican time”. Everyone was ready…way before! We formed a circle and the folks took over leading the rosary…with the accompaniment of a guitarist, one of the young people from one of our communities. It was stunning!
Friday night, once we settled in, we ate and then gathered to “begin” our retreat, sharing thoughts on the purpose of a retreat. They shared items with which you could write a book. Then we prayed the Stations of the Cross followed by Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, finishing about 11 p.m.
Saturday morning, after breakfast, we headed off on a pilgrimage which is at the heart of the soul of every Dominican: a visit to the Basilica of Our Lady of Altagracia (a three hour drive, one-way). Mothers in this country dedicate their children to Our Lady of Altagracia, and long for the moment to go to the Shrine and “complete” that dedication (many boys are actually named “Altagracia”). I had made arrangements several months ago for our visit and to celebrate the regularly scheduled Saturday noon mass. We were racing to get there. Moving a crowd like ours – 30 people – is not easy, and over such a distance.
I was sure we would not make it. But, we actually arrived with 15 minutes to spare. Well, not to spare, as we had committed to provide readers and choir and music. Our folks stepped up to the challenge and we were ready by noon to start “on time”. Folks who were just there to attend that Mass were commenting on how beautiful the experience was for them. And, I was the celebrant, for the first time, in “their” Basilica. That was a privilege. All of it was meant to be – the Spirit was working over-time to get us there and settled in to do what the Spirit had planned to happen!
After Mass, thanks to Francisco, one of our truly dedicated co-workers in the capital, we went for lunch to a contemplative monastery. What a setting! What a lunch! And the nuns shared with our group about their mission and ministry. Our folks fell in love with those nuns – many of them being from Mexico! They bought and bought so many of the food items that the nuns cook so to support their monastery. What a proud moment. Our folks learned so much more about the expansive reality called “vocation” and “ministry” in the church.
Sr. Elina Pina arrived to give the evening conference. Wow! Sr. Pina was spell-binding! That conference lasted from 8 p.m. until 10:30 p.m. The back and forth between our folks and her was as if they had known each other all their lives. In fact, she “is family”. She is originally from one of the hidden communities in our mountains, where they are know the same people and in fact are distant relatives. She shared the suffering her family endured at the hands of Trujillo, and the many in her family who were killed by him. She told them how they are where they are due to that horrible time in their history, she told them how so many in our mountains lack the ability to read and write as it was dangerous to seek that sort of education in the time of the dictator.
She could relate with them how she was looked upon with skepticism when she entered the convent as she comes from the “south” part of the island, where the “witch” runs life, while in the “north” there is faith. What she proclaimed they long for, they hunger for. They talked and talked about marriage. I think she has set the stage for a lot more work for me. So many of our folks are just “together” – “free union”. She portrayed so much of this area of marriage as a narrative of how the “witch” still runs the south and how Trujillo is still not “dead” and the need for the healing of “memories”.
Sr. Pina is a teacher and administrator. She teaches in her congregation’s (Congregation of Our Lady of Perpetual Help) school in Constanza in the morning and is the school director in the afternoon. She just returned, about a year ago, from a three year ministry in Nicaragua, teaching in their mountains.
Sunday morning, we started with the rosary. Sr. Pina offered a unique touch to the praying of the rosary…for the last mystery we headed off walking, leaving the area near the cemetery, grouped according to men and women, and prayed the rosary “walking”, like missionaries, those walking with and for the Lord. It was powerful. We arrived at the other side of the field, at one of the over-looks, and just below us, in the rolling waves of the sea, we watched three men laying out their fishing nets, rowing as if it was a choreographed dance, making a large semi-circle with the net as they returned to the shore. Our group knew what they were watching: Jesus sending his “fishermen” out to “catch”. They “got it”!
After breakfast, Puro Blanco arrived. He is well known to our people – and beloved! He is a psychologist and spiritual director, offering conferences all over the country. He is in high demand. I had arranged with him to offer the Sunday a.m. conference way back in October. He was equally stunning! His dynamics filled the folks with electricity.
He offered a powerful dynamic helping us to know what solidarity is and how key it is to do our part, be faithful. He traced the theme of “bond” in the reality of God and the people of God. He was clear on who Jesus is in that mission of solidarity…there is no solidarity without Jesus. The folks were on a high! It is amazing how these folks love “believing”; they are “naturals” at it. And, it “turns them on”.
On that note we entered the chapel to celebrate Mass which was beautiful. One of “our own”, Alcibiades (he is 20 years old) played the guitar and led the music, many of the pieces he wrote himself. He is a self-taught guitar player and a natural. His original pieces are spiritually powerful and emotional. The folks love Alcibiades (he is one of the two youth we sent to World Youth Day).
The folks took so many initiatives throughout this retreat, revealing a level of “desire” and “know how” as to being church that was inspiring. They are a truly endearing people and they do “get it” challenging all the various “prejudicial views” we – first world missioners – are inclined to super-impose on them. What they lack is “opportunity”. Isn’t that the evil of injustice and poverty? It steals life from human beings – the life that God wants everyone to have equally.
We hit the road to return to the mountains, making a quick stop at our residence in San Cristobal where 18 of our mountain youth are living and attending Loyola High School – that, too, was s thrilling moment for our folks; and we arrived in the mountains at about 7 p.m.
This was truly money well spent, well invested. Yes, the people of the Diocese of Orlando funded this. And each community is also offering its support of $1,000 pesos, which is a lot. The communities have invested in their leadership, too.
Father Fred Ruse is the pastoral leader in Sister Diocese, Diocese of San Juan de la Maguana, of the Diocese of Orlando.