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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A World Youth Day Story

The following was taken from a blog, The World Youth Day Story, of Fr Mark Wendling, SOLT, who is the parish priest of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Mission in Benque Viejo Del Carmen, Belize, Central America.

A World Youth Day Story

The village of Calla Creek is really more of a conglomeration of ranches located in the same general area than it is an actual village.  It is divided by the Mopan River, the two sides connected by a rustic wooden “hammock” bridge which dances a good deal as one traipses across it.  Our small school on the far side of the river serves about 75 students coming from 35 families.  Half of those are single parent homes.  On August 23, 2008 Deborah Xis and her 5 siblings were added to that group.

The Bridge to Calla Creek - the former thatched roof Church in the background
I had come to know Deborah Xis (pronounced “Sis”) through my visits to the school, particularly for school Masses.  She was a quiet girl but something made her stand out.  Perhaps her unique facial characteristics with her high cheek bones, perhaps her athleticism, perhaps merely the quiet humble nature by which she went about her business drew my attention to her.  She became one of only a handful of students whose name I knew. 

In June 2008, at the age of fifteen, Deborah did what relatively few young people from Calla Creek do: she graduated from primary school.  That was possibly my first real connection with her.  I recall at the simple graduation ceremony for the ten graduates that I was able to communicate somehow my pride in her and also my satisfaction and excitement with her plans to accept a parish scholarship to take her shot at high school.  The choice to attend high school does not seem the prudent one to a Calla Creek mind.  Deborah came from a ranch with no electricity and where chores abound; as a “farmhand” Deborah was far more useful to the family than as a student.  With the added sacrifices on top of it all – the daily 5:30a.m. tackling of a four-mile walk to the highway to catch the bus to school and the same repeated in reverse in the afternoon – high school was a hard sell in Calla Creek.  But God spoke something silently in Deborah; she saw the path and set out.

Graduation Day

Two months after that June graduation, Deborah’s father and oldest brother were shot and killed less than 2 miles from their home, held up by “banditos” presumably from the other side of the border.  Deborah’s younger brother Willie was also in the pickup truck as it was assaulted.  Willie ducked to avoid being shot; his older brother and role model took that bullet which took his life.  Willie ran for his and got away but not without the deep living scar of hearing his father’s last cries and the torturous burden of self-blame for his own brother’s death.

I went out to the “velorio” the next night to pay my respects to the family and to support them in that terrible time.  I remember Deborah walking out from near the house where the whole village had gathered.  It was very dark and she came across the field to greet me.  My heart was breaking for this girl and I already felt the anguish of knowing there was little I would be allowed and able to do to ease her sorrow.  I stretched out my arm to give her the “one-armed-hug” common in the Latino culture and recited the expected phrase: “Lo siento Deborah”.  She gave me the perfunctory one-armed-hug response and said “Si Father”; she was the picture of sorrow and anguish, a tough farm-girl holding in her sadness.  But in an instant, and I would say a moment of grace, she rested her head on my chest in that greeting and that gesture somehow gave her permission to the depths of her person to rest, to relax, to let go.  And she cried.  The silent sobbing lasted for about two minutes, and I, by and in Jesus’ grace – and I believe just like Him – stood and stayed.  When her sobs subsided, she retrieved her arm, stood erect and said “Gracias Padre”.   With that Deborah Xis walked into my heart, found herself a spot, and sat down for keeps.

Sometime in April 2010 I was sitting in the rectory chapel in adoration one afternoon and God said “Take a group to Spain”.  God doesn’t say much to me; I on the other hand do say a lot to me – I therefore rated the likelihood of this phrase being truly from Him as “dubious at best”.   I followed up on this conversation that He had (possibly) begun with a few practicalities, in case the Good Lord had missed from way up there some of the more obvious facts His idea implied: “I’ll go, but I can’t lead it.  I don’t have the time.  You’ll have to send someone to lead it for me.”  I don’t know if the Lord felt insulted, if He went to work on it, or if He felt we had said quite enough that day, but in any event, my sublime dialogue with the Divine ended there…

…until I went downstairs after prayers, walked into the front office, and saw Perla Chablé one of my parishioners who promptly said to me “Father, I’ve come to see you.  We need to take a group to Spain and I’m willing to lead it.”  Bingo.  Something was afoot.

Then He kicked into high gear.  I privately thought of the young people in our parish and school whom I felt would benefit from a trip World Youth Day.  Over the course of the month without fail and without prompting each one approached me independently and asked about the possibility of going.  All except for one.  I didn’t think of Deborah Xis.  He did.  I’ll never forget her coming to me and asking hesitant questions about WYD: what is it, when is it, who goes, and then finally the Holy Spirit’s nudge in me and that wonderful feeling of discovery and thrill and possibility all at once, as I said to her “Deborah, you’re thinking of going aren’t you?” “Yes Father.” “Deborah, you want to go, don’t you?” “Yes Father, I want to go to Spain.”  Revelation.  She was hearing Him again, not even knowing it was He who was prompting her.  Deborah was all in.

For the next 14 months we formed the group and went through the manifold fundraising efforts from selling turkey dinners, to chopping the schoolyard grass, to bake sales after Mass of garnachas and pastels.  Deborah would provide “pepito” – roasted pumpkin seeds – for the sales each week.  She participated in the meetings, staying overnight in the convent afterwards and returning to Calla Creek the following day.  The group progressed and the date approached.  Before we knew it we were flying out of Philip Golson International Airport, Belize City heading for Spain. 

The first big moment of discovery was watching Deborah in the Miami airport as she saw an escalator for the first time.  I couldn’t resist.  I ran up the regular stairs beside her and looked across at her face, fixed in concentration on the moving stairs beneath her.  And I goaded her: “Deborah, I don’t know what you’re doing.  I never use those things.  They’re nuts.  At the top they eat your feet if you’re not careful…”  My torment went on and as it did Deborah lowered into a crouched position and honed in on the approaching threat.  With three steps to go she launched in the air and cleared the top step by two feet soaring gracefully to safety.  The delight of taking a group of 20 of my beloved parishioners on three and a half weeks of entirely new experiences had begun.

The Colosseum, Rome

The majority of new experiences were not comical but sublime.  We hit Rome for four days, Assisi for one and Lourdes for two before reporting to Barcelona for 4 days of “Days in the Diocese”, Madrid for 5 days of the culminating World Youth Day events and ending with 3 days in Gijón, Asturias hosted by an old friend Keko.  No one could merit what I received in those days: the sheer joy – the joy of a dad watching the faces of his children every single day – seeing either what they had only imagined they might one day see, or seeing what they had never imagined before.  The entry to the basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome on Day-One epitomizes that experience.  I went in first just to be there to see them all file in.  Each face, without exception, expressed total astonishment and disbelief as their minds reeled with the delightful incomprehension: How could anything be so magnificent?

After mass at St. Mary Major's, Rome
The mind-boggling experience of new countries, new cultures, new people and friends, new sights and new revelations began with intensity that day and continued for almost a full month.  Whether it was looking over Rome from the great Cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica, or peering at the Apostle’s first century tomb below the Basilica’s floor; taking in the awesomeness of the Coliseum or celebrating Mass in the damp silence of the catacombs with the palpable presence of the Martyrs; straining to absorb the grandeur of the Sistine chapel or soaking in the intimate grace of the Eucharist at Pope John Paul II’s tomb; praying with St. Claire and St. Francis in their city of peace or swimming in the beauty of the Mediterranean; bathing in the miraculous waters of Lourdes or processing with thousands by candlelight at Her shrine; sitting in awe at Mass in Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia or dancing in her subways and streets with joyful pilgrims; singing at concerts in Madrid or contemplating the Stations of the Cross with the Holy Father; adoring in silence before the Eucharist with millions or celebrating joyfully in the Holy Mass with the same . . . in it all the Belizean Youth – my parishioners, my friends, the ones God gave me, my children – were coming alive.  It was the great life, the Catholic life, life to the full.