From Ireland to Paraguay, and back
Kevin O'Higgins, SJ (PAR)
My arrival in Paraguay in 1986, shortly after my ordination in Dublin, coincided with the release of 'The Mission', a film about the Jesuit Reductions, in which Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons heroically confront the injustices inflicted on the indigenous Guaraní people. The film became somewhat notorious in Paraguay, due to the decision by the Government to prohibit its screening in local cinemas. Supposedly, they feared that it might spark another Jesuit-led revolution! At the time, 'Liberation Theology' was at the height of its influence throughout Latin America. In El Salvador, Archbishop Oscar Romero had been murdered a few years previously. He was just one of thousands of lay people and religious who suffered prison, torture or martyrdom. The mid-80s Latin American ecclesiastical cauldron could hardly have been more different from the staid, conservative, clerically dominated Irish Church I had left behind.
The Ireland to which I returned almost fifteen years later was no less strange and startling, but for very different reasons. When I left here in the mid-1980s, formation centres were still teeming with young religious. There was no talk of clerical scandals or abusive behaviour in Church institutions. However, as we now know only too well, the silence cloaked a deep-seated malaise that was bound to rise to the surface, sooner or later. By the start of the new millennium, the Irish Church was feeling battered, bruised and humiliated. Departures and the scarcity of new vocations triggered an astonishingly fast transition from planning for expansionary new projects to considering the need for cut-backs and closures.
Increasingly, I felt a strong conviction that, whereas in the 1980s God had dispatched me as an Irish missionary to Paraguay, my new task was to be a type of Paraguayan missionary in Ireland! This involved making a determined effort to avoid merely settling back into comfortable routines, as if my fifteen years in Paraguay had never happened. Instead, I believe, God was urging me to allow the richness of my experience in Latin America to shape the manner of my new missionary life in Ballymun.
In Latin Paraguay, I had witnessed the indispensable role played by education in liberating people from the oppressive effects of poverty and equipping them, in the words of the 'Principle and Foundation', to achieve the end for which they were created. I think Latin American Jesuits have been exceptionally successful in linking our traditional commitment to the educational apostolate with a preferential option for the poor. Lessons learned in Paraguay extended far beyond the field of education. While the core elements of Jesuit life and spirituality remained familiar, there was much about the style of work that was different. For one thing, most Jesuits were engaged in multiple apostolic fields. My own primary assignments were to teach Philosophy and accompany young Jesuits in formation. But, almost as a sideline, I was pastor of a huge parish in a poor area of Asunción. Most of the day-to-day administration and pastoral work was undertaken by committed lay people. My specific role as a priest was largely confined to weekends, when the multiple 'base communities' came together for the Eucharist and other sacramental celebrations. Additionally, I was engaged in the spiritual accompaniment to both lay people and religious. Operating on so many different fronts was completely typical of any Jesuit's life in Paraguay. Most of us found it anything but exhausting. On the contrary, it seemed to bring out the best in people.
In conversations with other religious who have returned to Europe from Latin America and elsewhere, I find a strong common desire to share some of the richness experienced abroad, but also a common frustration in the face of barriers to doing so. For me, one of the most difficult aspects of my 're-inculturation' was the sudden switch from an outward-looking Church of the people back to a Church too often characterised by clericalism, introspection and, at times, self-obsession.
I realise that some of the things I would love to transport from Paraguay simply would not work in Ireland, for a variety of reasons. The Irish temperament and culture are very different, and even the weather makes the notion of lively outdoor liturgical celebrations somewhat fanciful! However, other things can and do work. The establishment of a significant Jesuit educational project in a disadvantaged area has been successful beyond all initial expectations. Daily contact with my neighbours is a constant source of energy and inspiration, reminiscent of my experiences in the barrios of Asunción. Whenever I wish to come face to face with the People of God, I simply have to open my front door! The regeneration of the Church in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe will, undoubtedly, happen. Some demolition and ground-clearing will be necessary before the new can emerge, but emerge it will!