(This blog has been published by Catholica – an Australian web based theological digest http://www.catholica.com.au/gc2/occ3/133_occ3_170214.php)
As a Catholic from the womb, during my childhood, passing through my years in the seminary which began in 1965 at the conclusion of Vatican II, and in my years of ministry as an ordained priest, the “Eucharist” was something done exclusively by those ordained as priests. Through the anointing of his fingers and the laying on of hands by a high priest bishop, the ordained could change bread into God and wine into the blood of Christ.
The common folk, known as the laity, traditionally “listened” to the mass and when permitted could share in “ministries” restricted to the more theatrical or non-essential ceremonial functions (altar servers, music, readings, maybe even a socio-drama before the gospel). The essential elements were restricted to the ordained clergy. Without a priest there could be no mass. In those areas where there is a growing shortage of ordained clergy, the church could permit community celebrations involving a communion service, but still the essentials (consecrated hosts) rely on the actions of a priest from a different time or place imported for this community celebration. The action of breaking bread and sharing wine as a Eucharistic prayer without the participation of an ordained clergy person is simply not contemplated or allowed.
The sacraments of the Catholic Church came to be the private property of the managers of this great transnational that is called “Church”. These mid and high level executives can decide who is eligible to receive the sacraments and can impose restrictions on the 99% of the membership of this church. The priest as the local manager can impose restrictions according to criteria dictated by the head office (Vatican), the top supervisor of the region (bishop), and at times he could invent his own criteria to demand certain behaviours or favors. There are many examples of clergy who would restrict the sacraments, for example to persons who voted for candidates favored by the church. Thus the 1 % of the church could exercise a control over the 99% who were taught to believe that the sacraments (controlled by the 1 %) were necessary for salvation. Those sins not forgiven by the 1 % were in theory never forgiven by God, even if God wanted. Thus the 1 % of the church, which traditionally came from and identified with the 1% of those with wealth and temporal power, could use church and religion as a mechanism of control to defend their privilege and exclusive powers over the 99%.
The “Eucharist” as liturgical action began in the early churches as an act of memory of that person whose life and witness had profoundly changed the thinking and behaviour of his followers. These early communities were mostly Jewish communities, who never thought of not being Jewish or of being something else. They were inspired by one of their own, an itinerant preacher from the north in Galilee called Jesus of Nazareth. He preached about a new kingdom and enunciated a new ethos for those who embraced this new vision. In the turbulent times under foreign occupation, he was perhaps misunderstood by the Romans or most likely well understood. He was defined as dangerous to imperial security and executed in a ritualistic manner devised to stifle opposition – crucifixion.
These early communities of Jewish disciples of the slain preacher gathered in their own tradition, using the prayers of blessing typical of a Jewish family meal, more often lead by the head woman in the family. There would be dialogue and discussion, remembering the examples and words of their rabbi. In the breaking of bread and sharing of wine, they had an experience of closeness with their prophet and teacher. This experience of closeness gave them courage and conviction to continue sharing his message not only among his people but even with the gentiles.
In 2013, with two trips into Latin America, I had two “meal” experiences which have “touched me to the bone”. In neither meal were there religious prayers or readings from sacred texts. Still both meals were like “eucharistic” meals, not in a traditional sense, but in the profound experience of what originally developed into that commemorative meal. Both meals were moments of sharing, with those who had much less sharing with the stranger, the visitor, the guest. Both meals were offered with open arms and a concern for the other. Generosity was the guiding rule. And both who so generously shared these meals with others were followers of that same preacher from Galilee from 2000 years ago.
In August 2013 I was traveling in southern Peru with my youngest daughter and a niece. A Peruvian friend, Nicanor *, knowing that I was of course going to be visiting Cuzco insisted that I also visit his home town, a Quechua village which was a six hour trip climbing over a mountain pass 5000 meters above sea level.
We arrived in the village of Lares on a very cold and rainy day after a difficult trip in a van which broke down 3 hours into the trip. Arriving at the main plaza of the village we were met by Eulalia**, our friend’s sister, who had been notified of our coming. We were taken to the home of Doña Rudisinda Yupanqui, the mother of our friend Nicanor. Eulalia helped her mother and at the same time translated for us from Spanish to Quechua, the ancient language of the Inca empire.
Doña Rudisinda had already begun preparing for our arrival. We were happy to sit in her kitchen, which was quite small with a fire in an open oven only a few meters away. There was a large pot of hot water waiting for the poor family rooster who had no idea that he was the main offering of the meal to come. The hot water helped to quickly pluck the feathers off the rooster which was quickly cleaned and separated into pieces which were then added to a second pot of boiling water.
Doña Rudisinda then made repeated trips to her garden and each time returned with fresh vegetables – a giant cabbage, carrots, onions, and different varieties of potatoes. While we sat and watched this process, we were occasionally distracted by more than a dozen guinea pigs that warmed themselves near the fire and scurried about looking for some vegetable peelings or a few shafts of barley. They were possibly rejoicing that they were not part of the menu.
In the hours we sat at a small table near the door, enjoying the warmth of the kitchen, different family members came by to greet us and some were directed to bring more wood for the fire. The time passed quickly in this rustic and warm setting where we were made to feel comfortable and welcome. As is my bad habit, I took advantage to take some photos of this unique gathering.
The table was small, so we were directed to stay at the table and others found other means to sit nearby. Each one received a large soup bowl with a thick stew made directly from the garden of Doña Rudisinda. The hundred mile diet was reduced to a 100 meter diet, everything was so fresh.
Doña Rudisinda is normally found each day in the main plaza of the town with a small kerosene stove where she boils water and prepares herbal teas for travellers who know that she has knowledge of natural herbs that help with different ailments. There she earns a small amount to help with family expenses. That day she was dedicated to her guests preparing for us a meal of the very best that she could offer, prepared with affection and concern because we were her honored guests, friends of her son. We were humbled knowing that it would be difficult to be so welcomed and received with such hospitality. We were given the very best that could be offered and invited into the circle of this family.
A few months later I was again in Latin America, visiting a dear friend and Jesuit priest, Father Ismael (Melo) Moreno ***. Melo lives in the city of El Progreso where he is the director of two Jesuit apostolates – an independent radio station known as “Radio Progreso” and a human rights center known as E.R.I.C. (Center for Research, Investigation and Communication.In Honduras, an extremely violent country governed by a traditional oligarchy with strategic involvement of the US embassy, either position is in itself dangerous. In 1983 an American Jesuit in Honduras was assassinated by a notorious military unit with involvement of the US government.
Radio Progreso in Northern Honduras
The radio station has twice been raided and shut down by the military after destroying the transmission equipment.
Father Melo has headed a campaign on behalf of a political prisoner, a poor illiterate peasant farmer, who has been imprisoned for more than 5 years in the notorious penitentiary near La Ceiba.
Twice I accompanied Melo to visit José (Chabelo) Morales ****, who in spite of a Supreme Court ruling that his conviction was irregular and that he should be set free, remains in the penitentiary. There are powerful people, including a highly ranked police Coronel, involved in an effort to evict poor peasant farmers from their land.
Our visits to the penitentiary were a bit strange. We arrived at the prison both times to find Chabelo standing outside the prison entrance waiting for us. The warden knows that Chabelo is not a criminal and no threat to anyone. As a gesture to us, he allowed Chabelo to meet us outside the prison walls where a few benches had been arranged under the shade of some tall pear trees. Thus we were spared entering the prison where a few years before 64 prisoners were burned to death in a suspicious fire.
Shortly after arriving on our second visit, Chabelo informed us that his mother and others coming from his village would soon arrive. He knew this because he was allowed to carry a cell phone. They were traveling by bus which would leave them on the highway.
From the highway stop, the prison was a 4 km. drive or walk along a dirt trail through a Dole pineapple plantation. Fr. Melo left with his truck so that with luck he could meet them and spare them the long dusty walk. In less than 30 minutes he returned with Doña Ramona, the mother of Chabelo, a brother and also an American peace volunteer who lives in the village of Guadalupe Carney as an international peace observer.
After some moments of tender reunion between mother and her prisoner son, Doña Ramona announced that we should have something to eat. We were intending to stop somewhere for lunch along the highway, so we had not prepared to eat at the prison.
Doña Ramona announced that she had prepared food before coming. She took out of her bag a chicken which she had cooked and a large stack of tortillas which were wrapped in some towels. At first we protested and suggested that the food should be saved for Chabelo for the next few days. Doña Ramona insisted that what she brought was for now. Fr. Melo said he had two bags of snack food in his truck. But we had nothing to drink. Someone gave Chabelo some money and he promptly returned into the prison to buy from the prison cantina. He returned with a 3 litre bottle of syrupy orange soda drink, and plastic plates and cups. Someone produced a small knife and Doña Ramona proceeded to cut up the chicken.
Everyone received a plate of delicious roast chicken and homemade tortillas. Some sat on the benches, while others preferred to stand. This was a meal in solidarity with Chabelo, his imprisonment and the hope that justice would be done. Doña Ramona watched for anyone whose plate was empty and she provided more chicken and tortillas.
A mother´s appeal “My son is innocent. Let him go”
Guadalupe Carney, for whom the village is named, was a Jesuit priest who was assassinated in 1983 because he identified too closely with the poor peasant people in their struggle to defend their land. In this meal we were present to all those in the village who daily fear another attack by those who covet their small parcels of land. Chabelo is in prison for them. His cause is their cause. All he wants is to return to his wife and family and to grow corn again. Doña Ramona´s tears are the tears of all mothers whose sons and daughters are victimized by the greed and power of such evil in the world. Many people in Honduras and in the exterior have been part of solidarity actions on behalf of Chabelo and the people of Guadalupe Carney. In March 2013 a thousand people walked to the capital city demanding justice for Chabelo. This was in a country where a walk down the street can be dangerous. All of this somehow became present to me as we shared the roast chicken and tortillas, along with the syrupy beverage from the prison cantina.
This picnic at the prison had no ceremony or even prayers of blessing. Doña Ramona was the only one who spoke, and that was to ensure that everyone had enough to eat. This was her gift to those who supported her son the prisoner. As we ate I had an experience of disconnect and connection. Here we were at a notorious prison, but outside the prison walls sharing tortillas and chicken. In doing so, standing only a short distance from Chabelo, I entered momentarily into his space and time. It was more than a physical presence. I had an experience of communion with this man who was oppressed and wounded, separated from his family and his land. I felt extreme poverty in that I could do nothing to liberate him or take him away. I became a part of his struggle for liberty and one in solidarity with his mother and brother, the American peace witness, and especially with Padre Melo who has made this struggle so personal.
These were two rather simple meals, even ordinary, but full of significance and closeness. They were a sharing that took away slight tinges of hunger, but meals that brought people together as brothers and sisters of the same family. Two meals given in generosity by families close to the land sharing from their own gardens not because of an abundant harvest but because of abundant love. We experienced a sharing of today´s bread, maybe tomorrow´s bread too, because hospitality and generosity are such important values among those who have less.
With the experience of these powerful meal experiences, I wonder if with all the rubrics and prayer formulations what is celebrated as a church “Eucharist” has lost some essential elements over the centuries. When we share the bread do we enter into the life of the other (neighbor) who may be standing right beside us? Do we share the joys and suffering, the successes and failures, the comings and the goings, and the voyage of life step by step with fellow parishioners or neighbors? We listen to the mass, we take the host if allowed, and then we escape to our private devotions to escape from any closeness with the “other”.
The tortilla, made from the corn pressed and ground into flour transformed by Doña Ramona into daily bread, was an invitation to me to be present with the political prisoner Chabelo and with him all those who suffer injustice. To be present is to enter into the history of the other. And possibly, the tortilla and shared pieces of chicken from the garden of Doña Ramona carried us to a communion with the creative and loving force that some will call “God” from where all life flows.
The gospels show how important it was for Jesus to share a meal with others, even if he risked giving scandal to the pious because he ate with “sinners” and others less appreciated by the righteous. It would seem that the preacher from Nazareth also enjoyed a celebration, a wedding where the guests drank the wine more quickly than expected. Somehow Jesus was left to solve the problem of an impending shortage which would embarrass the host and perhaps cause the feast to end early. Where did Jesus ever celebrate a meal that was only a religious function? The famous “Last Supper” was a real meal celebrated by the entire Jewish nation to remember the myth of their founding story. It was full of ritual and traditional phrases that elicited historical proclamations. And it was a meal where the women of the community had a prominent role. It was also a meal with plenty of food and drink.
The early Christian communities which mainly consisted of Jewish followers, disciples, of the slain preacher from Galilee, continued to share Shabbat, Pesach, and other religious holy days as was their custom. When doing so they remembered Jesus who had shared these meals with them, especially the Passover meal which so much spoke of suffering that led to liberation. In these meals they would retell the experiences they remembered or the teachings of their Rabbi. Later generations would retell the experiences told to them, continually adapted within their own story as written in their holy texts. In doing so, even with ritual, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, there was an experience of closeness or presence of Jesus still with them.
Perhaps the sacrament to be able to recover something of the original will need to accept that which is common and ordinary before it can attempt to speak to a more transcendent value. Attempting to simulate a higher level of experience without passing through what is common and ordinary risks transforming a sacred moment into a ritual that is cold and disconnected. Such rituals are then transformed and appropriated by professionals who twist the meaning and value for their own power and gain. Thus was the conflict Jesus had with the priests and temple masters of his time. No doubt he would confront those who do the same today.
Two mothers – universal mothers – Doña Rudisinda, a Quechua woman from Lares near the Incan capital of Cuzco, and Doña Ramona, peasant woman of the coveted village of Guadalupe Carney, country women who took what they had in their gardens and generously transformed their produce into a communion meal of solidarity and fraternity. The bishops with all their clergy in grand cathedrals don´t come close and probably can´t. For the organization called church, this “take and eat in my memory”, in solidarity with those who suffer and those who seek peace and justice, just has not been the same since the Roman empire took possession of its rituals, its dogmas, its leadership and its memory.
* http://www.omiusa.org/en/archives/international-news-archives/309-taking-the-long-and-winding-road ** View previous post “Eulalia and the Children” Oct 4, 2013 *** interview with translation Melo in Ashland, Oregon April 2013 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tSpafaC_0F0 **** http://hondurasresists.blogspot.ca/2013/12/update-case-of-jose-isabel-morales-and.html