Last month we celebrated LAMP Sunday in the Archdiocese. Father Simon Cadwallader serves with the Liverpool Archdiocesan Missionary Project in Peru and sends this report from a country looking forward with hope to the New Year – when it will receive a very special visitor.
The year 2018 promises to be one of celebration in my parish in Peru for two reasons: the first is the apostolic visit of Pope Francis in January and the second the national football team's participation in a first World Cup since 1982.
I would like to say the former will be more important to the spirit of the country but, as in Europe, football has a religious following in South America and I know that when evening Mass attendances dip unexpectedly, the likelihood is that the Lord has lost out to the theatre of Peru fighting for international footballing pride.
Nevertheless, the journey of the first Latin American Pontiff to Peru is a historic occasion which will generate great excitement. From 18–21 January the streets will be lined with thousands of people welcoming the former Argentinian cardinal. He will go to Puerto Maldonado, Trujillo and the capital city Lima where I anticipate many of our parishioners queuing for hours just to glimpse the man whose surprise election brought such joy and hope to this continent.
Indeed, 'United for Hope' (Unidos por la esperanza) is the official motto of the visit. Two outstretched hands under the motto evoke the colours of the Peruvian and Vatican flags: red and yellow, respectively. They form the shape of wings as a sign of prayer, praise and joy for the arrival of the leader of the Catholic Church.
Pope Francis becomes the second pope to come to Peru, following Pope St John Paul II's visits in 1985 and 1988. Thirty years on from the last papal visit, what are the underlying aspirations of this trip for the Peruvian Church? Well, the Pope has been asked to come and strengthen the bond between God and his people and to aid in 'a new missionary awakening' in the country.
Statistics say Peru is still a predominantly Catholic country but the rapid spread of evangelical churches in poor urban areas is undoubtedly having a significant impact. Their growing numbers and often virulently anti-Catholic rhetoric make it essential that Catholic households grow in their understanding of scripture and can not only defend their allegiance but actively promote the Catholic faith. Many of our parish community have not completed a formal education and struggle with reading so our catechetical programmes must be as imaginative and stimulating as possible to give people the confidence to dialogue on matters of faith.
Ahead of the visit, Pope Francis met the President of the Republic of Peru, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski Godard, in Rome. President Kuczynsi and his wife are devout Catholics. For the Peruvian leader, the visit will be a welcome distraction from the constant barrage of attacks from the opposition in Congress and he is understandably optimistic about it.
If Pope Francis can have a fraction of the galvanising effect of John Paul II's visit in early 1985, both he and the Peruvian clergy will be satisfied. The Polish saint came at a time when the country was not only undergoing a serious economic crisis but was into the fifth year of increasing violence from Shining Path guerrilla rebels.
The large cross on the Morro Solar, at the far end of Lima bay in Chorrillos, was commissioned by President Alan García as a gift of welcome to the Pope on his second brief visit to attend a Latin American Eucharistic Congress in 1988. The 45-metre structure, which is lit at night, was made with the remains of twisted metal from hydroelectric transmission pylons that had been dynamited by the Shining Path. It remains a beacon of hope.
In February 1985, Pope John Paul had celebrated an open-air Mass in the virgin sand of a shanty town called Villa El Salvador, on a strip of desert a mile from my own parish. Created in 1971, Villa El Salvador became a dwelling place for the poorest of the poor. Thousands of people, divided into sectors of 384 families each, moved to this desert south of Lima, built simple shacks, received water once a week and started up schools in empty huts.
John Paul's visit was providential in raising awareness of the plight of thousands of young families who were fighting for survival, many jobless and on the edge of starvation. On seeing this vast expanse of desert from the air, the Pope exclaimed: 'How do all these people live?' More than two million people swarmed to hear the Pontiff. Moved by the occasion, he departed from his written address, looked them in the eye and spoke from the heart. Their silence burst into emotional applause as the Pope forcefully affirmed: 'Hunger for God, yes; hunger for bread, no. That is unacceptable.'
The solidarity that the Pope encouraged in the fight against poverty found expression in the growth of communal soup-kitchens, places of meeting and affirmation for people seeking identity and security. With tenacity and dignity Villa El Salvador forged ahead and in 1992, with the economy gradually recovering, the food emergency diminished. Nevertheless, poverty is still endemic. In my parish of 40,000, with little infrastructure and stability of employment, hunger and malnutrition continue to afflict families and credit debt is all too common with loan sharks ever ready to take advantage.
While Pope Francis will address economic questions, he will doubtless target other areas of concern too. Having told the bishops of Latin America recently not to be content 'with the palaver and the proposals found in pastoral plans that never get put into practice', we can expect the Pontiff will not mince his words. As always, he will present the Gospel as being concrete, an invitation to a permanent exodus from self-absorption and towards true fellowship with God and neighbour. He will meet young people and encourage them, amid the complexities of busy lives, to find room for recollection and to use their gifts to discover the joy born of living life to the full – and not superficially.
So while the advent of 2018 will focus the attention of many Peruvian souls on their nation's prospects of surprising the seeds at the World Cup in Russia, the Church is praying that the 'papal event of 2018' will have a far more profound and lasting effect on the national consciousness. Passion for football is one thing; passion for Christ is the life-blood of a country that faces many challenges in overcoming poverty, disunity, and hopelessness among young people lost in a culture of drugs, violence and family disintegration.
Pope Francis has consistently preached that 'hope must always look at the world with the eyes of the poor and from the situation of the poor'. His messages to the Peruvian people will be scrutinised not just by eager students of the faith, but by the government, the press and most certainly the evangelical churches. Judging by his visits to other countries, one thing about this trip is certain: he will rattle a few cages and challenge sleepy Catholics to wake up.
Father Denis Parry and I thank the parish communities 'back home' for your kindness, prayers and the donation of funds towards much-needed welfare projects in our parishes through the LAMP collection. May the Lord bless all our parishes as we seek to be faithful to his call to mission.