It always takes time for a transition and I have been feeling my way back into my life in the Congregation and my new life outside of pastoral administration.
It’s one week now post-sabbatical and my four month routine is being tested. I need to maintain my prayer life and spend the proper amount of time necessary in prayer each day. What’s proper? The answer is I should have all the time that I need to pray.
So I have decided to observe two mini-sabbaticals each day and one full sabbatical each week.
At 7 AM and 7 PM more or less, I am going to stop, pray and rest from work.
On the day of the Lord’s Resurrection, Sunday, I am not going to do any work at all so that I can pray, rest, embrace and enjoy others. The only work I will do on Sunday will be service and ministry.
Exercise and attention to diet are difficult to manage. We all know that.
But, I’m giving both a whirl.
I heard a new bird this morning singing a new song by the river. Why should he be afraid? No one is going to insist that he stop singing. His Father in heaven has His eye on him. And, the Holy Spirit hovers over him and me with “Ah–bright wings,” as Hopkins says.
Our Lord tells us not to worry about anything –about what we are going to eat, or drink, or wear and that we are worth more than a whole flock of sparrows.
So, as St. Paul says: “I press on to what’s ahead.”
On the day I want to tell you about, hopeful shoeshine boys made their way among the diners at the several outdoor restaurants around the plaza. It was nearly 11 am and the bright Oaxacan sun was already heating things up.
I was sitting at one of those restaurants drinking coffee and eating pan dulce with a priest friend of mine. It was 1975 and we were simply passing through Oaxaca on vacation when I saw him.
Father Francis Pfieffer, OMI didn’t look much like a priest. The forty-something padre, dressed in work clothes and wearing a battered hat, was arranging and securing sixty-gallon drums on the back of his truck with thick ropes.
He was the sturdy kind of a man that you’d expect to find baling hay on a farm and in fact, his truck was the size of what we in the Missouri Ozarks used to call “hay trucks.” Its bed was raised a good two feet above the axles with their heavy, oversize tires.
I had met Ted Pfieffer two years before at a retreat for the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in San Antonio. I’d only been ordained a few years and when I heard Ted speak of the mountains of Oaxaca and the indigenous people he served, I was captivated. This man was not only serving the spiritual needs of these people but also trying to apply medical principles to help heal the people of their physical diseases.
I remember he had been particularly affected by the indigenous women who were giving birth without benefit of any medical help in the remote mountains. Complications during labor often led to the death of both baby and mother.
In the late ’60s, Father Ted was determined to try to minister as a spiritual and physical healer. Eventually, he built a clinic and learned how to assist in deliveries. He even hired doctors to come up from a distant medical school to teach him and a band of “paramedicos” how to assist with deliveries and medical emergencies.
What a coincidence! My priest friend and I were just passing through Oaxaca on our way to Guatamala. I had no idea Ted would be in town and he had no way of knowing that I would be there.
Now, he was getting ready to leave the plaza when I ran up to him re-introduced myself and
asked him to have a cup of coffee with us before he left. He was ready, he said, to go back up into the mountains with several hundred gallons of gasoline roped around the dusty bed and sideboards of his truck. His truck was scarred and dented, its red paint faded and pealing from years in the brutal sun of the southern mountains.
“I am a moving bomb,” he said. The Oaxacan roads have to be among the worst in Mexico.They are rocky paths sometimes, and dirt lanes hugging sides of mountains at other times. Lots of vehicles tumble down the mountain sides each year when roads simply give way after years of neglected maintenance.
“I can come down only during the dry season so I have to buy enough gas to last me for the six months of the rainy season when I can’t get back here because the roads are so bad,” he said.
We talked for less than an hour but Ted needed to get going so we said easy good-byes and watched him drive out of the square along the main road leading out of town.
I’d think of him occasionally throughout the years and wonder why I could not do something similar. I had always felt that the vocation of priesthood was a call to heal the broken hearted. To me, that still means healing of body and spirit. Since the age of thirteen, I felt the call to study for the priesthood and to become a physician.
I made several attempts early in my priesthood to attend medical school but it didn’t work out. It wasn’t until the Congregation of the Resurrection, my religious community, began thinking of establishing a mission in Mexico that I had the opportunity to go for medical training with the intent to practice somewhere in Mexico. By that time, I was fifty-two. Too late, for medical school but not for mid-level practitioner school . Study for the profession of physician assistant would give me the tools I needed to practice medicine.
It was 1992 when I finally started physician assistant school and in 1995 I joined two priest friends at our new mission in, of all places, Oaxaca.
We established a clinic there in one of the poorer zones of Oaxaca City and along with my priestly duties, I saw patients most days. All the while I was hoping that I would one day get to see how Father Ted was doing. But, he was in another diocese in the state of Oaxaca and a trip out to see him might have taken two days, some of that travel by horse.
Occasionally, I’d ask someone about him and hear that yes he was still out there in the mountains and still trying to bring the Gospel to the poor, the essence of the Oblate charism.
Now it is 2009 and I am on sabbatical in San Antonio at the Oblate School of Theology. I asked about Ted and the school secretary looked him up in the community roster and couldn’t find him. The news that she was fairly certain that he had died a few years ago saddened me.
But, I kept asking around and Father Collette, on staff there at the Oblate School told me that Ted was alive, here in the States and now retired. He was a five minute walk from where I was staying. He was living at the Madonna House, a retirement home for Oblates.
But, I knew he wouldn’t remember me. After all, it had been nearly thirty-five years since I bumped into him in Oaxaca. He wouldn’t remember me.Why should I run the risk of upsetting him or putting him in an awkward position, I thought. It was two months after that when I finally got up the nerve to visit him
I telephoned him and he invited me to lunch. He was old, of course, but I’m not exactly the youth he’d met thirty-five years ago, either. I didn’t expect him to remember me and, of course, he didn’t.
He’s had a stroke which has left him with his peripheral vision impaired, some deficits of memory and his ability to read is affected. However, he had no problems maintaining a conversation and brightened as he recalled details of his forty-seven years in Mexico.
“Six or seven babies who I delivered have grown up here in San Antonio and we keep in contact,” he said. “Others I’ve baptised and they come to see me,too.” He seemed proud of that relationship. And, I thought, here is a man who never had his own children enjoying those he had helped to be born both physically and spiritually.
I told him that I came to thank him for inspiring me those many years ago and that I might not have gone to medical school had I not met him. Nor, would I have become a missionary in Oaxaca.
He seemed to take the compliment with such ease that I thought he didn’t understand me. So I tried again later in the conversation to thank the man whom God had led me to meet and never forget.
After an hour at lunch it was time to leave. He walked me to the gate surrounding his residence and he mentioned that he’s working a bit these days in the garden . “I like to work with my hands,” he said. “I go out to hear confessions several times a week, too.” He hopes that his vision improves so he can drive again and get some of his independence back.
Just before he opened the gate for me. I thanked him again. Then, he opened his arms and invited an embrace. We hugged briefly and he thanked me for coming.
Walking back along a narrow path through the park-like campus of the Oblate center, a blackbird suddenly flew up and away from me as I passed him. He had been perched on a low post and apparently hadn’t seen me until the last second. He startled me with a rush of wings when I was only three or four feet from him. “You waited a long time before you decided to move,” I said out loud.Then it occurred to me: I guess I did, too.
San Antonio in the Winter
Everyone was talking about the weather yesterday. “A hard freeze will be followed by up to one inch of snow tomorow,” said the weathercaster.
Well, it sure was cold this morning, soneone claimed they saw flurries, but of course there was no snow. Snow is a rarity here in S.A. But darkness isn’t.
It seems we have an overabundance of cloudy days and beautiful S.A. shivers in a kind of early and late dusk this time of the year. There were only a few hours of sunlight today but by the time I took note of it, grey evening began to slip into the River City at about 4PM.
I usually don’t like to talk about the weather but I have a reason and it is because of the season (sorry). It is Advent, a compelling season that reminds us that although things are in shadows now, the light is coming. Of course in astrological terms, I think Dec.21 is the winter solstice. Don’t hold me to that date but I am pretty close. Christians are keeping watch for another
We Christians watch for the coming of the light out of the darkness because the Son of God
called Himelf the Light of the ‘World.
Read John’s Gospel and you’ll discover that from chapter one until the end someone is coming out of darknes into the light. Who can forget the long and important story of the man born blind
who sees but then has to go search for the Person of the Light? The sanhedrin officials are blind to the meaning of the miracle, though they knew that Isaiah had predicted a messiah who would
open the eyes of the blind. It would be one of the trademarks of the messiah.
Even in that first chapter, the author says that although the light came into the world, the people loved the darkness. He’s talking about the darkness of sin. How is it possible to love your sin if it leads you into darkness? But, isn’t it strange, we have to love sin in some way otherwise we would never choose to do it. We choose to create our own murky garden within.
On Christmas we will hear the words read from Isaiah: “The people who walked in darknes have seen a great light.”
Even now at 8:30 pm in the darkness there are stars up there. Flickering stars in the dark, tiny rustling lights in San Antonio on an cold Advent evening.
Come, Lord Jesus!
In the town plaza of the city of Oaxaca in the Mexican state of the same name, it was dawn, but cloudy and cool. Murky would be the word for it with just an occasional soul hurrying to work, scrunched down into a light jacket or reboso, a kind of heavy shawl. I found myself nearly alone as I walked through the square toward the cathedal,a huge building still in shadows. There was no wind at all.
I felt the quiet of the early morning along with a kind of sadness. Mexico was undergoing a recession and last week the value of the peso had dropped nearly thirty percent overnight. That meant scrimping even more among a people many of whom were already barely sustaining themselves.
Imagine how you would feel knowing that you would not earn enough today to put tortillas and beans on the table. Instead of three meals a day there would be only two, lunch and supper. Maybe the kids would get something to eat at school, maybe not.
I’m from Chicago so a fortiesh degree temperature didn’t seem cold to me but I hurried anyway up the side steps of the cathedral. But just as I was about to go inside some movement in the street to my left caught my attention.
There were men mounted on horses slowly entering the plaza on two sides. No one was talking.I don’t know why but I noticed that the horses seemed small for the size of many of the men who were riding them. Both horses and men looked exhausted and dust had settled on them. They looked for all the world as if they had just completed a final round up. The whole scene seemed like an uncolored painting, all grey and dark brown figures moving slowly toward the square. The only sound was of the horses’ hooves dragging on the cobblestones.
The horses looked as weary as the men. They dismounted wordlessly and began to set up a type of camp under the trees, near the gazebo across from the palacio, the large two-storey building which housed the government of the state of Oaxaca.
It was time for me to celebrate the first Mass of the morning in the chapel of “The Christ of the Thunderbolt.” The cathedral had burnt down years before after a lightening bolt had hit one of the towers. A life-sized crucifix was spared and ever since then, that chapel had become a shrine of miracles.
After Mass, I found out that the men in the square had come down from the mountain to protest the low price they were receiving for their coffee beans. Minimum wage at that time, about ten years ago, was just about $2.50 per day. The day began with sunrise and ended with sunset and every day was a workday. (Fiestas are holidays–more about that some other time.) Their wages often did not reach the minimum level no matter how hard they worked.
The men in their work clothes lounged in the square for a week, their presence creating an unease for the local officials. Their horses were tethered to trees in the square and their droppings soiled the beautiful park where most sunday afternoons the Oaxacan state orchestra played concerts.
Violence is not a typical part of a public demonstration in Oaxaca. These men just gathered in silent protest. No placards, no rousing chants, simply presence in the square. It was a powerful statement and demand that the government pressure the buyers to increase payment per sack of beans.
Would you like to know how much pressure a silent protest can exert? Then, listen to part two of this story:
Later that same evening, I had another Mass at the cathedral and was surprised to find the archbishop in the sacristy waiting for me. He told me to go ahead with the Mass and stay around afterwards as he had something he wanted to discuss with me. The archbishop, over six feet tall and in a white cassock was an imposing figure whose gravitas endured just about everything except a good joke. Then, he would erupt into a huge laugh and his face would transform in a grandpa-kind of warmth until reality drew him back into religious solitude.
When the cathedral was completely empty (the sacristan had told the people he was locking up), the archbishop told me that the king of Spain was going to make an unoffical visit to the cathedral at 8 PM.
“The king of Spain?,” I said. “He’s here? In Oaxaca?”
Then the archbishop explained that the Juan Carlos, the king of Spain, was an archeology buff and was visiting the local ruins, in particular, Monte Alban, an ancient seat of Zapotecan culture complete with pyramids, a ball court and mysterious buildings, all of which formed the heart of a long gone empire.
It was to be a quick visit to Oaxaca with no pomp, no speeches, no ceremonies of any kind. In fact, the king was staying like any other tourist in a small and elegant hotel within walking distance of the cathedral.
Juan Carlos wanted to see the square and the cathedral in particular so arrangements had been made and the archbishop’s presence was requested, but no publicity was permitted. It would be a private visit at 8 pm.
So we waited. The archbishop told me he didn’t know what the king expected. No trumpets,no special decorations would greet Juan Carlos, for sure. The achbishop guessed that he would show the king around and then bring him before the altar for a special blessing. Meanhwile, the coffee workers mingled quietly in the square, right outside the cathedral.
For some reason, I’m not sure why, His Excellency had invited a small group of elementary school children to sing a song or two for the king of Spain. It was all on the QT and only their director was with them. She and the children were huddled in a small chapel as if they were little lambs flocked togther for safety. Dios mio , they were going to sing for the king of Spain!
There were three of us clerics by now, the archbishop, myself and another tall -must I say it -bald, and very white priest who had joined us. We were all sitting on a bench talking as the eight o’clock hour passed. No king. No notice.
By 8:30 pm,, the bishop is becoming agitated. and the children are falling asleep on their little chairs. However, one little girl gets up, walks over to the priest who had joined us late and said to him politely and with a lovely smile on her face: “Senor, es usted el Rey D’ Espana?”
He told her that sorry he wasn’t the king.
Juan Carlos never did show up and the archbishop left in a huff at around 9 pm. Later, we learned that Juan Carlos’s security team did not permit him to enter the plaza because of the presence of the coffee plantation workers.
I doubt very much whether the workers would have reacted with anything more than a “Gracias” if the king would have stopped by.
Eventually, as always, the governor of Oaxaca passified the workers with some promise of better wages and the demonstration, after a week, broke up. The coffee workers returned to the mountains.
These workers were descendants of the proud nations who had inhabited the valley of Oaxaca before Spain sent its explorers. The indigenous land was taken from them and today tourists trample the site where Zapotecans reined long before Spain and her conquistadores drove the native peoples from the valley up into the mountains.
Think of what you pay for a cup of coffee and remember that those who grow and harvest coffee beans are, for the most part, paid wages that hardly allow them to subsist.
When you see coffee marked “fair trade” you might want to do your part in assisting coffee workers south of us by switching brands, even though it will cost you more. Seems a small price to pay for justice.
At the Catholic Relief Services web site you can learn more about how you can buy free trade coffee and even get a supply to sell and use (Think of all the coffee served at the meetings and events in your parish .)