Seeding The Church
Updated: Feb 15
There is an expression used particularly among Evangelical Christians: "seeding a church", they say when they are busy establishing a new church in a new town. Starting from scratch, an intrepid pastor with his/her coworkers begin by finding a place to worship, advertising their "start-up" to the neighborhood, and then caring for the new members they draw in over time. It is a rich expression, these words, "seeding a church"; they have a farmer's feel about them: preparing soil, planting seeds, caring for them as they grow, harvesting. Jesus would approve, I'm sure.
We Catholics don't use the expression much, but over the centuries, that has pretty much been what we have been busy about over the face of much of this world. Our own evangelical and missionary efforts have surely been tainted by nationalism, racism, and insensitivity to local cultures. Too often, the subjects of our missionary efforts have been seen as nothing more than brutish savages, so were not treated with the respect or compassion they deserved. Somehow, the Holy Spirit managed to do some seeding along the way and peoples of many cultures and from many lands found hope and joy in the faith brought to them, in spite of the abuses they also sustained.
Such was certainly the case in a place like Ecuador and all of Latin America. Missionaries here as everywhere were too often mean-hearted and brutal, yet there were enough compassionate and wise ones that against all odds, seeds were planted in previous centuries and they have been growing in fits and starts ever since. This is what is still called a "catholic country" meaning that Catholicism, particularly the Spanish version with its devotions, processions, and colorful customs, is now the air people here breath. The culture is so deeply influenced by the Catholic religion that it is everywhere, from rosaries hanging from the windshield mirrors of taxis to the formidable presence of Spanish baroque churches every other corner or two. No matter what you are doing or where you are going, angels and saints and pierced sacred hearts cannot be avoided. More importantly, the folks who occupy the pews of those churches, string those rosaries on mirrors, or glue an image of a favorite saint on the back of their iPhone give testimony that in a culture like this, there is consolation in knowing God is near, especially in times of hardship, illness, and poverty. A fair number of locals don't regularly practice the religion anymore, but no matter how secular they might presently be, they just can't escape the ever-present catholicity of the world they live in. As I said, it's in the very air they and we breath here.
In the midst of such a world, our little group of Catholic expats in Cuenca has its own challenges when it comes to "seeding a church" among the North Americans who have settled here in substantial numbers. Depending on who you ask and on what day, estimates of the expat population in Cuenca range from somewhere around 6,000 to maybe up to 10,000. No one seems to know, people are coming and going all the time; there doesn't seem to be any reliable way to take a count. But if just 10% of those expats are Catholic, then there are a lot more English-speaking Catholics in this town than the few that have held themselves together as a local church the past several years, which has been as low as four or five stalwarts and recently as high as twenty or thirty.
This small group of Catholics, bound by a desire to worship together and be nourished in their faith, has occasionally had English-speaking priests from India or Africa and very occasionally, a local Cuencano to celebrate the sacraments and the Word with them, but just as often, they have had to hold themselves together when no, or at best, minimal, English-language ministry was available to them. Mass in Spanish at a local parish is okay, but they have missed hearing a homily in English, missed celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation (confession) in their own language, missed having the solace of the anointing of the sick in words they can understand. Most of the expats here are retired and well into their 60's and 70's so gaining basic fluency in a new language is a difficult challenge even though many work at it regularly. And the "Catholic culture" of Ecuador, so prevalent and so intriguing in its mash-up of Hispanic and Indigenous cultures is not their Catholic culture.
So it is that I enter the picture, a retired, 70-year-old priest from up north, ready and willing to offer this little flock of North American Catholics what I can by way of the sacraments, the Word, and some pastoral leadership. I've been here just a month tomorrow (February 14th), not counting the exploratory five months I was here last year to "try it out" as so many expats do. Last week, I received my prized two-year resident visa, so I'm not a tourist anymore. I've rented a nice apartment. But most of all, I've been getting to know the folks even as I provide them the pastoral services in English that they have longed for so long. English language Mass on Sunday at the Iglesia de San Francisco has been slipped into the previously empty 10:00 am slot, surrounded on both sides by a couple of Spanish Masses presided over by our pastor, Padre Jorge Moreno. Word is spreading that we are up and running in English because each Sunday the number of expats and visitors in attendance at that Mass has increased; this past Sunday we were almost thirty in number. I've heard some confessions, anointed some of the sick, and happily attended more than a few social gatherings in people's homes or in local restaurants. Two weekends ago, we had our first "community meeting" to make some basic decisions about how we best go forward; it went well. We decided to take on for ourselves the name of the parish church we gather in, so we are now the "Saint Francis Catholic Community of Cuenca." We decided to have coffee and doughnuts after Mass each Sunday in the lovely courtyard next to the church (actually no doughnuts, but the homemade brownies, muffins, and cakes are far better!). We decided to form a sort of "parish council" to advise me and work together with me as we move ahead; even better, every person I invited to be part of that council said "yes" to the invitation. We raised a bunch of money for Padre Jorge's charity in the nearby town of Chordeleg...and bought six new hospital beds for the disabled who reside there. We still have to figure out how we are going to manage our collection money (if any) in coordination with Padre Jorge and our host parish. We still have to develop leaders and committees to take on specific tasks in the community. We still have a long way to go to "get the word out" and make ourselves known to the wider expat community and to visitors passing through. All in due time. For the moment a certain amount of "flying by the seat of our pants" is just fine.
All in all, what we are doing really is "seeding a church" here in Cuenca: tilling some soil, planting some seeds, watering those seeds as they grow, weeding a bit now and then, and trusting the Holy Spirit to breath on these efforts to bring forth whatever harvest she might desire. Seeding a Catholic church in an already deeply Catholic culture is rather counter-intuitive, but we need a church within a church that fits us and in which we can pray in our maternal language, and proclaim the Gospel in words and images we understand from our infancy ("bread" works better for us than "tortilla"!). We are deeply conscious of the lovely reality that we are doing this seeding with the support and care of our hosts, Padre Jorge and the parishioners of the Parroquia de San Francisco. They have welcomed us warmly, given us everything we have asked for, and put up with our own strange ways. We are a church within a church, a family within a family, the seeds we sow belong to all of us as do whatever is eventually harvested. In fact, we ourselves are the seeds being planted in this already fertile soil.
Little seeds that we are, we need some help from beyond ourselves, so maybe as we plant and are planted, nourish and are nourished, harvest and are harvested, a little prayer is in order:
Oh God, Creator of all that is:
Accompany us in our flesh and blood, in our joys and sorrows.
Breathe upon us and give us life.
We are all of us but humble umbrella-seeds that have blown in from many places and landed here in this far-away but beautiful field.
Grant us rich soil in which to germinate.
Water us with the rain of grace.
Warm us with the light of love.
Give us wisdom so that we might gently root out the weeds of rancor, impatience, self-interest, and so that, in your good time, we might bear a great harvest in this place:
A harvest of justice, peace, compassion, and generosity in all things.
Amen. Amen. Amen.