The Kingdom of God in Guatemala, III
Morning breaks and following a quick breakfast in the parish house with Padre Nicasio, Deacon Ovidio, and Miriam, the cook, we jump into the Toyota Hilux and head up the hill, then back down another to return to Simajutiu. The clouds are heavy above and threaten rain ahead. The remains of Padre David have been transferred to the second chapel in the village, that of the Community of Jesus, The Good Shepherd; well, not in the chapel itself for that is under construction these days, so actually in the basement of the new building. A sanctuary has been set up amidst the heavy concrete columns upholding the rising construction above. Altar, ambo, chairs, banners, and, of course, a bed of green aromatic pine needles covering the hard floor. The congested space is filling up already when we arrive, and we quickly don our vestments and begin the liturgy. A highly amplified praise band is glorifying the Lord to one side and a phalanx of vested altar servers to the other. This time, it is Padre Nicasio who leads and preaches and so I have a bit of a rest until the end when I am asked to share a reflection. I take the ambo and this time, vary my message a bit; I make reference to a popular hymn in Hispanic communities up north and possibly here too: Amar es entregarse, olvidandose de si...buscando lo que al otro puede hacer feliz. "To love is to give of oneself, forgetting oneself, looking for what will make the others happy." (It is much better in Spanish!). I briefly add: "This is what Padre David taught us not just in words, but through his deeds and his works. He did not think of himself; he always put you first. He always gave even when it cost him his comfort and even his health. This is what we have learned from him."
After the final blessing by Padre Nicasio, yet another procession forms; once again, the casket is lifted up on four men's shoulders and carried through the narrow and muddy alleys of Simajutiu to the plaza where the next ad hoc hearse awaits. Time is taken for a meal for everyone, and then all the vehicles including large yellow school buses begin jockeying to form themselves into a proper procession. The work is not easy and it is already raining. Those who've taken their places in the beds of pickups furiously try to string tarps over themselves while others just take the rain as it comes. Slowly but surely, the final funeral procession forms and the first vehicles follow Father David up out of the valley, back to the Ixtahuacán road, and back down that serpentine road into Antigua Santa Catarina. Deacon Ovidio and I are in the Toyota and we have a gaggle of boys and young men standing in the bed of the pickup who are being drenched as we slowly work our way down. At one point we call back to them to see if they want to join us in the cab, but one bravely calls back, "No, we're enjoying it back here!" They are, of course, soaked to the bone, but no matter, they are participating in something grander than themselves and are proud to be doing so. We, actually, are far behind the lead vehicles and when we finally arrive in the heart of the town, cars are parked everywhere, and most people are looking for a roof or awning to hide beneath while the downpour continues. The cobbled streets are rolling with wide rivers of water being shunted downhill.
The planned procession of Padre David's remains through the streets of the town goes on despite the rainfall. The casket is covered in his favored green chasuble, which is also getting soaked under the driving rain. An um-pa-pa brass band accompanies the casket as well as an acolyte with incense, four men carrying a processional canopy above the casket. At the elementary school Padre David helped establish and which was then named after him, the procession stops, the casket is turned three times before continuing on. Eventually, it makes it to the church, passing under the arch decorated with flowers and greenery, turns and heads to the front door of the parish house where he lived for 42 years; again, three turns in a very confined space, then on to the quickly filling church, where the casket is laid atop the catafalque and the praying and singing (highly amplified, of course!) continues.
My dear friend of many years, Javier, who has been serving as one of the pall-bearers, worked as Padre David's cook for many years and thereafter in his trout farm; after setting down his corner of the casket, he practically falls upon it in tears and remains there sobbing for a long time. Finally, regaining his composure, he works his way through the crowd and comes to me, wrapping his arms around me, burying his face in my chest, and weeps. As do I. I hold him until his body grows calm again, then he says a few words to me in gratitude, then lets me go. Within moments, his place is taken by his son, Vianney, and once again, I am wrapped in the sobbing love of these holy guys. Kingdom of God guys. The rain lightens up and I say to no one in particular: Hasta las nubes lloran. "Even the clouds are weeping."
The vigil around David's casket continues through the afternoon and the night, each hour attended to by one or other of the twenty-two communities associated with the parish. The photos also continue until I can finally break away for some time at the dinner table with Padre Nicasio, Deacon Ovidio, and Miriam.
Following a good night's sleep, we have a busy Sunday ahead of us. A quick breakfast, then Deacon Ovidio, and I will join Bishop Domingo for Mass in the village of Chirijox up on the Pan-American Highway, a town caught in the cross-fire of an on-going and very violent land-war between Nahualá and the new Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán; Chirijox is a village greatly in need of its bishop's reassuring presence. Following a meal in a nearby house, we head back down to Antigua Santa Catarina arriving with just enough time to greet the visiting priests and get ourselves vested and ready for the liturgy. TIn the sacristy, the bishop gives me permission to pray a segment of the Eucharistic Prayer, the commemoration of the dead following the Consecration. Then into the crowds our lengthy procession of acolytes and clergy dive, walking along a dirt path alongside the church to get to the front doors. The um-pa-pa band is playing loudly outside and as soon as we enter through the wide doorway, the voices of the choir in the loft above our heads take the lead. We are surrounded by David's familia: thousands of his parishioners packed into the church and still many more outside. The processional hymn resonates through the building and carries us forward, past Padre David's casket, past flowers and bouquets and pine-needles and up into the sanctuary of this old church that was his prayer-place for most of his life. Bishop Domingo presides with a measured and gentle manner. His homily focuses on humility as the essential virtue Padre David taught us by his life. The liturgy unfolds and the spiritual energy in the church is high as a kite. The luto of past days seems to have passed into alegria. There is joy here and its everywhere. And gratitude. And love, of course...immense love that cannot be contained by this building but is reaching into the skies: hasta las nubes cantan! I say to myself: "Even the clouds are singing!"
Eventually, Bishop Domingo steps to one side and gestures for me to come to the altar; I have the text of the commemoration of the dead in my hand, but not in Spanish nor English; it is in K'iche' and precisely the words Padre David himself translated into the local Mayan language. I pray on his behalf using his words and the church filled with thousands goes particularly silent as I do so. They want to hear every consonant and vowel because it seems like Padre David himself is praying these words so familiar to them. More than a few are weeping. No one expected this, yet here are his words in almost his voice, and that is good enough for them; Padre David is as near to them in this moment as ever. He prays for them and with them and in them...and they with him. As I finish reciting his words, I too know that this is yet another Kingdom of God moment among many such moments now. The Communion we share in just a few minutes further on confirms our communion with him and the Lord who called this very good shepherd here to this place in the mountains of Guatemala.
In place of the usual final blessing of the Mass, Padre Nicasio, Deacon Ovidio, the pastor of New Ixtahuacán are led to the casket while Bishop Domingo reads the prayers of final commendation. The four of us then pick up the casket and in silence the crowd opens for us to pass. We carry his remains into the new chapel built for him and place it on its permanent catafalque. We pray silently for a while, then make out way back through the murmuring crowd, prayers on their lips and in their raised hands. As we gather in the church sacristy, we know in a way, this is just a beginning. The people are already praying for his intercession and hoping for miracles. Padre David is already un santo as far as they are concerned.
In my opinion, one of those miracles has already taken place: in the church today were not just Catholics, but congregants of local Evangelical churches and their pastors. Since the rise of those churches decades ago, there has been a bitter tension between them and their Catholic neighbors. Somehow, in David's death, those tensions have been dissipated, at least for the time being. Who could have imagined all of the Christian churches of this area now juntos in one church, praying together in grief and joy and gratitude? Impossible, most would have said even a few weeks ago, but there we all were drawn together by the faith, service, and self-sacrifice of Padre David Scott Baronti. Our old wounds and mean words behind us. Peace shared among us. Grace always just ahead of us. Well, that seems altogether Kingdom of God-like to me. Imagine if such were the way of the rest of this world? Better than "imagine", dream and hope that such might be the rest of this world and soon. There is lots of not yet when it comes to the Kingdom of God in this creaky old world of ours, but if our eyes and hearts are open to it, there is plenty of Kingdom of God already here too. Certainly, in this distant town in the mountains of Guatemala, the Kingdom of God is plenty near. It embraced me and made me weep and taught me the ways of life and love, grief and joy, compassion and peace. I shall be ever grateful.
(I have prepared a YouTube video with images in photos and video of some of these events as I experienced them. If you'd like to watch, please click: Padre David Baronti: Exequias )