The Kingdom of God in Guatemala, I
"The Kingdom of God" is one of those anachronistic expressions for us nowadays people that comes directly out of the Gospels of Jesus, also alternatively referred to as the "Kingdom of Heaven" in Matthew's Gospel. As Jesus and his gospel-writers use the term(s), it refers to both that place where we gather after death with God and our ancestors in faith, "heaven", but also it means that moment in human history when God's way of loving and living finally takes hold on this earth of ours. As theologians love to remind their students, it is both a "here and now" and a "not yet" kind of thing.
In the "here and now" of human history, we got a great big dose of the Kingdom of God in Jesus himself. In a very real way, Jesus IS the Kingdom of God made flesh and blood among us. In him, back in the first century and even now through his words and deeds recorded in the Gospels, we have access to God's Way of Living and Loving, particularly in the story of Jesus' passion, death, and resurrection. For Catholics and other Christians who cherish the sacramental tradition of Christianity, we also encounter the Kingdom of God in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.
Well, enough of theology for the moment! Let's talk real life for most of us who are making our way in the modern world. For many of us, the "Kingdom of God" seems a bit distant from our daily realities of work, finances, food, summer breaks, sickness, health, marriage, kids, or no marriage and no kids. On top of all that we have the additional preoccupations of a world fraught with war, injustice, possible nuclear holocaust and probable devastation from climate change...not to mention the increased odds of being shot to death in a supermarket, movie theater, or pub by some troubled kid with an AR-15.
And yet, even with all that, some of us, maybe most of us at one time or another, get at least an inkling of whatever it is that is meant by Jesus's "Kingdom of God" vocabulary. Whatever else their troubles, a couple may experience ecstasy at the birth of their child. "Its a miracle!" they might exclaim, and with good reason: this squirming, fleshy, freshy new life they hold now in their arms, they know, is something more than just a "thing" or even something they created on their own by their own sexual powers. No, this, their baby with its pink toes below and hint of hair atop, and certainly already with a crying voice, is a GIFT from some grace greater than them. That ecstasy with all the hope and love wrapped like swaddling clothes around this fragile and precious gift...that's Kingdom of God stuff! If we keep our eyes, ears, and hearts open to them, life here on earth has many such "KoG" moments.
So all that is introductory matter for me to share with you one particularly potent KoG moment in my life, and arguably perhaps the greatest of all my life. As I wrote about in the previous post, (David), Father David Baronti was a priest who dedicated almost all of his adult life to caring for the K'iche' Mayan people of Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán in the highlands of Guatemala. Word of his death hit the community hard. It seemed unbelievable. Once the reality set in, deep grief settled over the community, luto they would call it in Spanish. Tears of tristeza (sadness) flowed. Since Father David died in California, they wondered if they could ever fulfill his oft-spoken desire to be buried in Antigua Santa Catarina. Days passed before they received word that Father David's sisters had agreed to return his remains to them and that arrangements were being made for them to be carried down by friends in Spokane, who already had plans to visit in early-July. Arrival at the Aurora airport in Guatemala City would be July 5th, Wednesday, at 3:30 pm.
Immediately, from their side, the current pastor, Padre Nicasio, and his leaders in the parish began planning every detail of the funeral services for their beloved former pastor of 42 years. This involved establishing planning the procession from the airport back up into the mountains, various stations for vigils in outlying villages, processions between them, who would speak and when, and several full-scale Masses at various sites across eight days.
As for me, I at first hesitated when I saw the long and complicated flights between Ecuador and Guatemala...no direct flights so I knew it was going to involve several layovers and at least one red-eye. Then a mutual friend of Father David and myself got me on the line and repeated: "Kevin, you have to go! You have to be there!" And that was enough. He was absolutely right and no matter the slight sacrifice of lengthy air-travel, I was going.
I arrived in Guatemala City at about 9:30 am on the 5th. I was met by Father Nicasio just after passing through Customs, then after a quick breakfast together we returned to the airport where a crowd of his feligreses was gathering on the walkways in front of the airport. As the hours passed until 3:30, that crowd continued to grow and grow as more and more people had come down from the highlands to receive and accompany Padre David back home. Small radio stations that serve the area were there as well, livestreaming every minute and filling the time with interviews with me and others, all this so that those who had migrated to the U.S. could be a part of it in New York, LA, or Houston.
Finally, Spokane Diocese's Donna Connell with accompanying family and friends arrived on time, carrying David's ashes in her backpack. They were worried about getting caught up in international customs issues with the remains, but they passed through both in the U.S. and in Guatemala without the slightest difficulty. Donna gently passed the urn containing Father David's remains to Padre Nicasio, they were then placed within a small coffin also containing some of Father David's clothing and Mass vestments left behind when he retired six years ago at the age of 70. This in turn was placed in the back of a small SUV adorned with yellow and white flowers, and so the procession back up to the altiplano began with innumerable vehicles following the ad hoc hearse.
After the three-plus hour drive, the first stop was the aldea of Tzucubal, a dependent village of Ixtahuacan not far off the Pan-American Highway where hundreds were lining the streets with candles and torches awaiting the procession. The new bell that had just been purchased for the chapel there tolled. Voices projected through massive loudspeakers worthy of a rock band, announced the arrival of Padre David. An arch build in front of the church was strung with bananas and other fruit surrounding a banner that read: "Welcome, Padre David, in your final journey to Aldea Tzucubal." David's casket was removed from the lead-car, placed on the shoulders of four men who proceeded to carry it rather precariously into the chapel, the crowds following behind. Seeing that small gray and silver casket rocking on those shoulders towards the chapel doors was too much for me; it is when I realized with full force that this extraordinary man was really and truly dead. I choked up and followed him into this chapel where he had prayed so often. I hung towards the back until someone spotted me and called me up towards the sanctuary. I guessed that I'd be asked to say something; I worried that a full night of flying, and a full day being greeted, hugged, and interviewed in Spanish might affect the quality of my Spanish speaking skills (for when I am tired, my Spanish grammar goes seriously south!). Indeed, it was not long before I was handed a microphone and invited to share mis sentimientos (my feelings) about Padre David "in this moment." I cobbled together my best very tired Spanish and began to speak, but I was again suddenly overcome and nothing came out. I tried again and still, overcome and no words. Finally, in apology, I placed my hand on my heart, sighed, and suddenly the crowd surrounding me began to applaud, loud applause, enduring applause, fuerte aplauso! They were feeling with me exactly what I was feeling: sentimientos too big for words. Their emotional support wrapped itself around me and dandled me on their knee until I finally was composed enough to say just a simple message that I would repeat over and over again throughout the ensuing days:
Father David has greatly blessed you across these years with his indomitable love, faith, and courage. You received so much from him and he has blessed you so abundantly for so many years that your tears and grief are deep and beautiful. Yet, do not forget that you also gave him much in the way of love, faith, and courage. He was able to do all this because you loved hm and in you more than any other people on the face of this earth, he found God. In your faces he found the face of Jesus. In your prayer he found the Holy Spirit. Thank you for that. Maltiox che la.
More applause to embrace me with the same love they gave him. "This moment is a Kingdom of God moment," I thought. And it was; the first of many.
And so it began.... As they continued to pray around David's casket through the rest of the night, I was taken about midnight to the nearby convent of the Sisters of Charity of New York to get some sleep before the Mass in the morning there in Tzucubal, at which I had been asked by Padre Nicasio to preside and preach.