Pilgrimage offers encounters of gratitude, hospitality

By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
For several days last week, I had the opportunity through the invitation and generosity of Catholic Relief Services, to travel on encuentro (a visit of personal encounter) to Honduras with five others from across the United States. This mission broadened my direct experience of Central America, which is rather limited.
As you know, I have visited our mission in Saltillo, Mexico, and previously traveled on pilgrimage with the Maryknoll Missioners to the shrines of the martyrs of El Salvador and Guatemala, including the shrine of Archbishop Oscar Romero.
This pilgrimage to Honduras was unique in that I experienced the fruits of some of CRS’s developmental projects in one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, allowing me to encounter segments of the Honduran population who were grateful and hospitable.
The work of Catholic Relief Services is best understood in the light of its Mission Statement, the essence of which follows. “Catholic Relief Services carries out the commitment of the bishops of the United States to assist the poor and vulnerable oversees. We are motivated by the Gospel of Jesus Christ to cherish, preserve and uphold the sacredness and dignity of all human life, foster charity and justice, and embody Catholic social and moral teaching.”
Along with disaster relief, such as the earthquake in Haiti, and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, the dedicated staff of CRS is committed to sustainable development that is often accomplished in collaboration with other Catholic entities such as Caritas International, and with local, national and international officials. In our site visits we learned about the involvement of the government of Honduras, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the World Bank, to name a few.
But most importantly, in the three major projects on our journey the local populations are fully engaged as active partners and agents for change. This is the cherished Catholic principle of subsidiarity, i.e., that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization at the local level.
The first of three visits, all of which were to the northwest of the Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, was at a Food for Education program which seeks to improve school attendance and literacy among school age children by providing daily nutritious meals, training for teachers, health and hygiene trainin, and transportation and school supplies, all of which reduces access barriers. Family and community members are encouraged to be fully engaged through volunteering and oversight.
The second of three stops was to a Water Smart Agriculture project in service to small family farms of coffee producers. WSA “promotes the sustainable management of soils and their fertility to help insure adequate availability of moisture to reduce the effects of drought…to positively transform the food and water security of a critical mass of farmers in the region.”
The spirit of collaboration was evident between the local farmers and the staff of CRS and it was my first experience meandering among coffee plants and banana trees. In the midst of this visit the image of a smiling Pope Francis came to mind. Why? His profound and insightful words for an integral ecology from his prophetic Apostolic Exhortation, Laudato Si, were much in evidence on the fincas (small farms) of Honduras. Liberation from the dominant technocratic paradigm does in fact happen sometimes, for example, when cooperatives of small producers adopt less polluting means of production, and opt for a non-consumerist model of life, recreation and community.
Or when technology is directed primarily to resolving people’s concrete problems, truly helping them live with more dignity and less suffering. (Laudato Si) This takes the will, commitment, expertise, and the savvy of many, because as Pope Francis further points out, that apart from the ownership of property, rural people must have access to means of technical education, credit, insurance and access to markets. This is the vision of CRS and many in the field for the small coffee producing farmer in Honduras and in many areas of our world.
The third of our site visits was to a Water Project that was developed over nearly twenty years on the side of a mountain, (of which there are many in Honduras) that is quite complex, yet elegant in its simplicity. It functions by gravity and mechanical expertise and serves an entire community of more than 10,000 people with their water and sewage needs.
The entire town has been and continues to be involved in the decision making process of this 20 year in the making project, and the people who live in the four-mile watershed table above the plant are given incentives to maintain their land in ways that will safeguard the water supply. It’s an amazing story, and even during the long dry summer season, it’s a rarity that the water has to be rationed. CRS rightly takes pride in their role as a partner from the outset in this project.
The three projects were focused visits, as you can imagine, but there were also many other enjoyable and inspiring moments. Prayerful and spirited liturgies each day, engaging conversations among the sojourners, with CRS staff, and the Honduran people, the sight of the pervasive mountainous terrain, and expansive valleys, and the images too numerous to count of the Honduran people going about their day. I had a very enjoyable dinner conversation with Bishop Darwin of the Diocese of Santa Rosa de Copan, which encompasses all of western Honduras. I know that the Diocese of Jackson is no small parcel of land, but when he told me that he had a million and a quarter Catholics spread throughout the mountains of western Honduras, I felt blessed for my diocesan family in Mississippi.
Overall, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to visit Honduras, one of our neighboring countries in Central America, a region from where many immigrants and migrants have come to our state and nation, and have enriched our communities and parishes across our diocese.
In conclusion I cite the words of Pope Francis from Laudato Si which captures the hope engendered from my experience south of the border, and the burning desire of the Holy Father, the staff of CRS, and of many throughout the world or an integral ecology.
Let us look to Saint Francis whom I took as my guide and inspiration when I was elected Bishop of Rome. I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically. He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology and he is also much loved by non Christians.
He was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and the outcast. He loved, and was deeply loved for his joy, his generous self giving and his open heartedness. He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.