By William Manaker, SJ
I arrived in Belize for a month-long immersion experience in the Mayan villages of the Toledo District with only minimal background information. I would be working with several brother Jesuits to facilitate retreats for village catechists. We’d be collaborating with a committee of indigenous Mayan leaders. Mayans in Belize speak two different languages, Q’eqchi’ and Mopan, and Q’eqchi’ is the larger of the two groups. There have been difficulties in the local village churches stemming from lack of formation and resources. Otherwise, I was going in blind.
The learning process began right away. Upon arriving in Toledo, I quickly learned that the local Church operated in a way quite different from what I was used to in the US. The Jesuit parish, St. Peter Claver serves a population of over 35,000 people, through 35 small village churches scattered throughout the district. Last year, the parish was staffed by only two priests (thankfully, a third arrived this summer), so each village only celebrated Mass on average once every three months. On the other forty-odd Sundays of the year—and on several major feasts, as well—the village churches hold a communion service led by a trained catechist from among the people. Even given the priest shortage in the US, this was like stepping into another world.
I learned from these parishes a new way laypeople and clergy can collaborate in serving a particular community in the local Church. I received this gift primarily through working with the parish committee for the Mayan villages at St. Peter Claver. Besides the pastor and his associate, there are four Mayans on the committee, two men and two women: one, Sister Higinia, is a religious sister from a Mopan-speaking village, and the other three, Thomas, Teresa, and Larson, are originally from a Q’eqchi’ speaking village.
Our team of Jesuits could not hope to facilitate the planned retreats without the parish committee. None of the Jesuits in our group were Q’eqchi’ or Mopan, so in order for us to minister to the people effectively, it was imperative to work together with indigenous leaders who knew and understood the culture—not to mention the language! In our first week together, the members of the committee gave the three new Jesuits an orientation to life in the Mayan villages, helping us to understand some of the history of the people, the social norms. We visited a nearby Mayan ruin, ate traditional foods like caldo (a soup-like dish made with local chicken, literally from the yard, and eaten with fresh tortillas or cua), and even learned a few basic phrases in Q’eqchi’.
When the retreats began, my Jesuit brothers and I offered talks to help the retreatants reflect on the experience of their call to minister as catechists within their community. For each talk we gave in English, a committee member—usually Thomas or Larson—translated it into Q’eqchi’, which took some getting used to. One of my Jesuit brothers, giving his talk for the first time, used a term common in Jesuit circles when speaking about vocation and discernment, but that didn’t translate easily; as a result, Thomas, who was translating, had to bend over backwards to express the meaning. Afterwards, our team laughed at the experience, and all of us made sure to check any special vocabulary with one of the Q’eqchi’-speaking team members in the future!
The witness of the committee members’ dedication to the faith and their ministry was powerful, especially the lay members who also had families. Thomas shared how he experienced his call to be a catechist through an encounter with Scripture after an employer gave him a Bible; Teresa shared that she had been encouraged to become a catechist by her father, who was himself a catechist and a man of deep prayer. Larson had experienced his call to be a catechist after years of working with his wife in youth formation.
One particular example of generosity remains deeply imprinted in my mind: I later learned that when planning for the retreats, Thomas was unsure whether he should assist with all four of them or only two, since assisting with all of the retreats would require taking a full month off of work; furthermore, he would only see his family on weekends during that time. Thomas talked to his wife about it, since it was not a small sacrifice to make for their family, and when he had proposed assisting with only two of the retreats, she responded, “I think you need to do this; it is part of your calling.” Seeing such generosity and commitment challenges me to live my own vocation as a religious more faithfully.
The spirit of the whole retreat team was also a witness to the possibility and the rewards of collaboration between catechists and the parish, between men and women, and between religious and laity. Our team was a joyful group, teasing and laughing with one another often. We were united in a spirit of prayer, and we supported one another in sharing feedback and assistance. Furthermore, our different vocations—we were a group of three lay catechists, a religious sister, a priest, and three Jesuits in formation—complemented one another like different voices in a choir singing in harmony.
Larson, Teresa, and Thomas, as the married members of our team, balanced their care and solicitude for their families with their calling—which they had accepted and committed to in a significant way—to help serve the parish as members of the committee. They understood the culture and the daily realities of the people in a lived manner different from even what Sister Higinia could, even though she was also from Toledo. Sister Higinia, as a religious woman, brought a sometimes fiery yet still motherly zeal to our shared task. Father Sam, as the priest, demonstrated a shepherd’s concern for the flock entrusted to his care, praying and working earnestly for their sake and not hesitating to share, when appropriate, the pain he felt when he encountered disunity or troubles in the churches. I can confidently say that all of us on the team felt strengthened in our own vocations by the time we spent working and praying with one another.
In our world today, especially in secular circles, there’s often a focus on power. There are only so many voices that can be heard, or so the idea goes, and those voices are in competition with one another as in a shouting match. The loudest voice wins. And even when power is shared, which is sometimes done, it’s usually such that one voice speaks at a time, taking turns. There’s no sense that it might be possible to form a choir out of these disparate voices, where the different voices sing together in harmony and contribute to a music that transcends what a single voice could create. But this possibility of voices singing in harmony rather than in competition is precisely what Pope Francis is calling us to as a Church by urging the way of synodality. And in doing so, Francis is calling us back to an ancient vision of the Church: John Chrysostom says that the Church is “a name standing for ‘walking together’” (synodos in Greek) and is called together in order to sing God’s praises like a choir. 1
In working with the members of the parish committee in Toledo this summer, I experienced a real choir, real synodality; each of us on the team had a different voice, but those voices came together in harmony. I hope that we as a Church, when we think about how to work with one another, can live by this image of the choir, singing together one song of praise and love under the direction of the Holy Spirit.
This story first appeared on The Jesuit Post and is republished with permission.