Cardinal Seán's Blog

Cardinal Seán O’Malley shares his reflections and experiences

Day: February 16, 2007

Visiting the Society of St. James in Peru

Last week I traveled to Peru for the annual meeting of the Missionary Society of St. James the Apostle. The St. James Society, as it is commonly called, was formed 49 years ago by Cardinal Richard Cushing in response to the call of Pope John XXIII for priests and religious from North America to aid faithful of South America.

The archbishop of Boston is the titular head of the society, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year.

In those years, over 300 priests have served in the Andean countries Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador through the Society. There are approximately 40 priests currently serving. Those who participate learn Spanish and incorporate themselves into the St. James Society with the commitment to serve for at least five years in Latin America. From the beginning, Cardinal Cushing envisioned this as an association of diocesan priests not only from Boston but from other parts of the English-speaking world. Today there are Americans, Irish, English, Scottish, an Australian and two Philippinos in the group.


A recent photo of the priests of the Society

Boston is, I believe, the single diocese with the most priests presently serving the Society in Latin America. However, by nationality, I think there are more Irish than Americans there at this point. It is interesting to note that many of the Irish there are actually priests of the Archdiocese of Boston, though they never served here. Cardinal Cushing ordained them for the archdiocese so that they could serve in the St. James Society.

We hope that in the future, more priests from the archdiocese will be able to participate in this mission. We are very glad that diocesan priests from other dioceses are joining because that makes it possible for the wonderful work of the St. James Society to continue.

The countries in which these priests serve have far too few priests to serve their large Catholic populations so the presence of these additional priests has made a significant impact. They have been particularly involved in some of the most difficult and the poorest areas of these nations. In fact, they have made a special effort to target their ministry to those areas.


A new church being built by the Society

Yet, the benefit of their work has not only been seen in Latin America. Many of the Boston priests who have served the Society in Latin America have returned to work with the Spanish-speaking Catholic community here in the archdiocese. Thats the case with our recently ordained Bishop Robert Hennessey as well as many other priests.


Touring the new church

The annual meeting of the Society was held at La Sede, their central house in Barranco, which is a suburb of Lima. Last year I was unable to attend, but this year I very much wanted to be a part of the meeting. During my visit, we invited all the bishops from the dioceses where the St. James priests are serving including Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani Thorne of Lima to meet with us. They all expressed their gratitude for work the Society was performing in their dioceses.

In the evening of the annual gathering, the priests would come together and sing Irish songs late into the night. There was a Scottish priest from the Diocese of Galloway, Father Martin Chambers, who played the guitar and led us all in the singing. There is a great spirit of brotherhood among the priests, and at the central house, where they gather each week. It is a wonderful dynamic to see how supportive they are of each other, particularly when you see the difficult situations in which they live and the pastoral situations they must deal with. It is a great source of strength for them to come together and enjoy each others company. There is a great spirit of fraternity among these priests even though they are diocesan priests from many different dioceses. They have a sense of unity of purpose and mission, and their devotion to the Church and to the poor and the ministry that they have is very inspiring.

The parishes in which these priests minister are huge by American standards. Many have a central church and then many chapels. One priests I met there, who is not part of the society but is from Westminster, England, told me that his parish consists of 150 chapels which he visits by mule. The rural parishes are like that: very large areas with many small communities of people who have no means of transportation.

I had the opportunity to visit one of the parishes in Villa El Salvador in what is called the Pueblos Jvenes. The area, on the coast of Peru, is home to four or five million people who have come down from the Andes. Many of the residents have made their way there fleeing areas in which conflicts with the Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path guerrillas) have made life difficult and dangerous.


Los Pueblos Jovenes

One of the most striking things about that area is that, despite being on the coast, it is parched desert. This is caused by an oceanic current, called the Humboldt current. The Humboldt current carries cold, nutrient rich water from the Antarctic up the western coast of South America, past the coast of Peru. The water, in turn, cools the air, which makes it much less likely to produce rain.


Here you can see the desert terrain the shacks are built upon

This lack of rain is evident in the way people construct their houses. When people come down from the mountains they start by building rudimentary shacks but without roofs. Only later, once they are more established, do they add a roof and perhaps brick walls.


Children at play

The Pueblos Jovenes have electricity, but no running water. Water must either be trucked in or carried from great distances.

One of the people I met during my visit to some of the shacks was a lovely 14-year-old girl named Sylvia. Despite her living conditions and the fact that she was severely disabled, paralyzed and mute, her smile was just radiant. She lives with her grandmother and has an aunt who is also unable to speak but can walk.




Her aunt

In another hut I met an old man who is dying and covered in bedsores.


Visiting the elderly man

I think places like these Pueblos Jovenes help to destroy the romantic image some have of poverty because they show the human suffering and some of the dehumanizing aspects of people turning to alcoholism and domestic violence which are very common in those areas.


Touring Villa El Salvador with Fathers Simon and Adrian

There are many faithful Catholics living in these communities as well. Oscar, the man who drove me from the center house, has six children. He and his wife were part of the Catholic youth organization in the parish, married in the parish and they meet with couples every week to pray together and study the Scripture together. Their main concern is passing the faith onto the children. In the midst of all of the human suffering you see the nobility and the goodness of people and the joy of families who have great love for each other and a sense of working to help community. I am sure that is what gives the priests from the Society the great faith they need to continue in faith.

Two of them Father Adrian Crowley from Dublin, Ireland and Father Simon Cadwallader from Liverpool, England have helped to create an orphanage that I visited. It is run by the Sisters of the Cenaculo. The Comunita Cenaculo is an Italian movement that works with young people who are suffering from addictions. They have been very successful in helping people turn their lives around and live good Christian lives of discipleship.

Out of that community has come a group of sisters, consecrated women, and three of them responded to the call to begin this orphanage there in the parish run by the Society of St. James. They take in abandoned babies there from newborns to children who are six years old, and do their best to create a home-like atmosphere for them. There are many cases where the children came to them starving to death, and the sisters nursed them back to health.


The sisters, volunteers and children of the orphanage


It was inspiring to see that the sisters depend entirely on providence for food, all the other supplies for the children and even the orphanage building itself it was built entirely by volunteers.


Getting ready to go

I was pleased to celebrate Mass for the sisters, the volunteers and the children.

Also during my trip, I visited the cathedral in Lima, and its adjacent parish church called Parroquia del Sagrario.


The cathedral

At the church they have a statue there of a theme, which I like very much. It is a statue of the apostle St. John giving Holy Communion to the Blessed Mother. Of course St. John received Mary into his home, and it is quite logical that he would have celebrated the Eucharist and given her the Eucharist. I have only seen it twice before, once in Italy and again in Charlestown at St. Mary Parish. It is a wonderful statue.

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The interior of the Parroquia del Sagrario and the statue

I passed by the presidential palace, which is just across the plaza from the cathedral.


The presidential palace

Then we walked a short distance to the church where Saint Rose of Lima is buried.


Praying at the tomb of St. Rose of Lima

We also went to the Dominican monastery where San Martin de Porres lived.


The monastery of St. Martin and his tomb


We also took this picture of the episcopal palace, which is next to the cathedral. There is a statue on top of the palace of San Toribio de Mogrovejo, who was the bishop there.

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At the airport, heading home, I met up with a couple that I knew when I was in Washington, D.C. I officiated at their wedding and baptized their children. Last month when I was in Washington for the March for Life, I spoke with a Peruvian boy who served the Mass in the crypt church of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. His name is George Becerra.


Looking at the picture of George’s Baptism in Washington D.C.

He showed me a picture of his baptism, which I had performed. He told me that his parents had since moved back to Peru, and I responded that I was making a trip there soon. George told his parents the dates of my trip and, fortunately, we were able to meet up briefly before my flight.


A brief reunion with Elio and Eusebia Becerra at the airport

Finally Id like to leave you with my photo of the week: This beautiful image of the sun setting over the ocean just beyond the Pueblos Jovenes. Within these waters runs the Humboldt Current which both bring abundant life to the waters off Peru but, at the same time, denies the coast rain and turns the land into desert.


February 2007