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Vocations in Bolivia.

Religious are organizing programs; the diocesan seminary is filled

There is a vocation boom in Bolivia: Religious are organizing programs; the diocesan seminary is filled.

I worked with the Dominican formation program in Bolivia for three years. When I returned to the United States, people were both impressed and skeptical. "Is it bad economic times?" they asked. "Are the poor trying to step higher on the social ladder?"

Those factors are relevant -- aren't they always? For most men and women, however, there is another reason: They want to follow Christ.

Sylvester has been with the Dominicans for four years. He is a Quetchua Indian from a farming community in a remote section of the Andes Mountains. Sylvester had moved to the city of Cochabamba to finish his education. One Sunday evening as he walked through the main plaza of the city, he saw a group of young men in white robes preaching. He liked what he saw. The next day, he knocked on our door and asked to join the Dominicans.

"Finish your education first," we told him. "Take care of your military obligations. (Every Bolivian male is required to serve one year in the military.) After that, if you are still interested, come back and we will talk some more."

We didn't hear from him until two years later, when he again arrived at our door. "I finished my education," he said. "I did my military service. What more do I have to do to join the Dominicans?" We were impressed. We let him in.

While I was in charge of Sylvester's formation, he constantly urged me to visit his family with him. I resisted. Our standards of hygiene don't exist in the countryside. There are a lot of microbes and parasites lurking out there, making it dangerous territory for a gringo raised in an antiseptic environment. Besides, I did not know the Quetchua language. How could I communicate with the people? My reluctance was no match for Sylvester's persistenee. Eventually, I said yes.

Cuti is a village of about 100 people. It is not easy to reach. After a nine-hour bus ride, we hopped into a jeep and rode for 90 minutes. Then, on foot, we descended a mountain for 45 minutes.

There are no roads to or within Cuti, only footpaths. It has no town center. An adobe church is the community meeting place. There is a hospital, which a doctor visits occasionally, and a small schoolhouse, although parents who want their children to get a decent education will send them to the city (Sylvester left home when he was 6). There are no stores. There is no plumbing, no electricity, not even an outhouse. A stream trickles down the mountain; there everyone must go. A mud embankment traps water, forming a small pond -- the community's bath and laundry.

That part of the Andes is as beautiful as anything have ever seen. Inca ruins in the area add an aura of romanticism.

Most peasants in Bolivia are poor. When it rains enough, they eat simply but well. Some own beds, perhaps a few wood tables and some chairs. A mud bench built into a mud wall is the common settee. They have little money. People in the city won't pay much money for the peasants' vegetables. So the farmers merely survive; that is about it.

They are poor in other ways. Cuti has its church, but the people rarely see a priest, a sister or a lay catechist. A few years ago, the bishop of Oruro convened the religious in his diocese. They were too clustered in the city, he told them. They needed to move into the countryside. Few accepted his challenge, it appears.

That I soon discovered, is why Sylvester brought me to Cuti: He wanted me to see and hear the people's needs.

One morning I stood on the edge of his family's compound, admiring the sun as it dawned above the mountain. Sylvester joined me. "Look at the mountain facing us" he said. "Do you see that cluster of houses halfway down? That is about six hours from here, a village the size of Cuti. They have never had a priest visit them. After I am ordained, I want to go.

"If you look north, you will see another cluster of houses. It is a village of about 70 people. It is about a two-hour walk between the two villages. After I preach in that first pueblo, I want to move on to the second. A priest never visits there either. When you round the bend of the mountain, you come across a chain of these villages, all about the same size, all two to three hours apart. None of them ever sees a priest. My dream is that after I am ordained, I can go there, walk from village to village, sharing with the people the gospel they have never heard."

Sylvester is one of many. Priesthood and religious life are not simply ways for Bolivian youth to escape misery and economic insecurity. The Good News of Jesus has touched their lives. They want to pass it on. It will not be easy even for a native like Sylvester to return to the country. He is accustomed to the comforts of the city. He likes his movies, his television, the variety in his diet. He enjoys hot showers and water from a tap. Yet, he sees a need; he is ready to go.

Recently, we commemorated the arrival of Columbus and 500 years of evangelization. Spanish missionaries brought many blessings to that land. One thing the missionaries did not do, however, is help the Bolivians form their own church. They did not think the Bolivians had the strength of character necessary. Consequently, the priests and religious, even the hierarchy, still are mostly foreign-born.

I was saying Mass in a chapel on the outskirts of Cochabamba one Sunday. In the middle of my sermon I thought, "Isn't this ridiculous? Four hundred and fifty years of evangelization and these people still are stuck listening to a gringo priest and his North American accent and examples. Something must change."

The change is occurring. The United States and Europe no longer have the personnel to send to countries like Bolivia. Our vocation crisis means that the local Bolivian church, natives and missionaries alike, have to uncover the hidden treasure in their midst. The Bolivian youth have sensed a change. They are at the doors, asking to come in. Finally, we are saying "Welcome." As we do, we discover that the Bolivian youth have hearts as generous, as compassionate and as filled with faith as any we from foreign lands ever had to offer. There is hope.
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Title Annotation:Catholic clergy
Author:Cleator, Gerard B.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Dec 25, 1992
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