11 February 2008

Perceptions challenged

One of the things I like about this job is that it constantly challenges my perceptions. Br John Antony and I just completed a visitation of the Province of Medan in Indonesia. Before the visit, what I knew about Indonesia could fit on a matchbook cover: it was made up of many islands, it was home to Bali (where a lot of people were killed in a terrorist bombing), and it has the largest Muslim population of any country in the world.

This last fact especially colored my perceptions about the three provinces of Indonesia. I assumed that the Catholic population of the country would be relatively small, and therefore well served by the more than 300 Capuchin friars in the country. What I found surprised me. The Province of Medan covers the northern part of the island of Sumatra. The Christian population of the area is actually quite large, and about 60% of those Christians are Catholic. Add to that the fact that there are only about 20 diocesan priests in the area, and that other religious congregations have only recently begun to enter the area. As a result, most parishes are still staffed by Capuchins. More surprising to me was the size of the parishes. The smallest parish that I encountered during my visit had about 9,000 parishioners, with about 6 outstations. The largest parish had 35,000 parishioners and 63 outstations! Even the largest parishes had at most two full-time priests to serve it, although friars in other ministries often covered some of the Sunday masses. Because of the number of outstations, the main parish church might be able to have a Sunday mass twice a month. The people in the outstations might have to wait three months between masses.

Obviously, given the great need, most Capuchins in the Province have until recently been parish priests. Recently, however, the Province has been turning some of the parishes over to the diocese and to other congregations, leaving friars available to serve in other ministries or in missions.

Another surprising discovery during my visit to Medan was the way the friars have tried to inculturate the Catholic faith. The predominant cultural group of northern Sumatra is the Batak, whose homes have a very distinctive architectural style. The friars have incorporated many of these architectural elements into their churches, to beautiful effect. They also use Batak musical instruments in their liturgies. Such attempts at inculturation have lead to the large scale acceptance of the Catholic faith among the Batak. The friars of the Medan Province, most of whom are Batak, are now enriching the Church and the Order with their friendliness and strong work ethic.

03 February 2008

Miter flu claims another victim

On 30 January, I attended the episcopal ordination of our former General Minister, Br John Corriveau. Although the episcopal see is in Nelson, British Columbia, Canada, the ordination took place in Kelowna in order to accommodate those coming from a distance.

The ordaining prelate was Archbishop Luigi Ventura, Apostolic Delegate for Canada. His homily drew extensively from the writings and biographies of St Francis, and at one point he urged John to bring his Franciscan joy to the pastoral care of the people of his diocese.

About 30 Capuchins from around the world braved the frigid Canadian winter to attend the ordination. Among them were 4 Capuchin bishops: Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Denver (USA), Joseph Oudeman, Auxiliary Bishop of Brisbane (Australia), Luis Pepeu, Bishop of Afogados da Ingazeira (Brazil) and Andrés Stanovnik, Archbishop of Corrientes (Argentina). Also present were the provincial ministers of all the provinces of the United States and Canada, friars from Great Britain, Poland, Italy and, of course, many from his own Province of Central Canada. Four Friars Minor who minister in British Columbia were also in attendance, happy to welcome a bishop from the Franciscan family.

John's ordination was a bittersweet moment for me. Of course, I was happy that John's abilities were recognized by the Holy See. He will be a great bishop for the Diocese of Nelson. On the other hand, I was sad that the Order is losing John's energy, enthusiasm and creativity. The title of this post reflects my frustration that we have lost so much leadership in the Order to the episcopate. I don't want to be selfish, but, hey, we need strong leadership, too! I am reminded of the comment made by a friar of my province when our then-Provincial Minister, Charles Chaput, was named a bishop and shortly afterward I was assigned to work in the General Curia. He complained about Rome "reaching in" and taking the good friars, then added, "And what are we left with? Excrement!" (not the actual word he used). I'm sure it's not as bad as that, but you get the point. As an Order that emphasizes its obedience to the Holy Father, clearly John could not have refused the Holy See's request.

In case you are interested, Nelson is a town of about 10,000 people. It has a small airport nearby and few hotels, but was until recently one of the more historical and important towns in the area due to mining for gold and other metals in the area. As the importance of mining wained, Kelowna overtook Nelson in terms of population and importance, with people being drawn there by viticulture and tourism. Kelowna is a 350 kilometer (215 mile) drive from Nelson.