Starting from zero again and again

Fr. Napa [on guitar], during a procession. Photo: Fr. Palanapa Tavo

Fr. Napa [on guitar], during a procession. Photo: Fr. Palanapa Tavo SSC

I arrived in Peru thinking that it wouldn't be very challenging. I was sent straight away to Bolivia to learn Spanish. When I arrived there, my host family was waiting for me at the airport with my name written on a piece of paper. We waved to each other. Then we went to their home in silence. For two weeks, all our communication was done with signs until I managed basic Spanish. It was painful, but it taught me to be humble and know that missionary life has to start from zero.

Arriving back in Peru after learning Spanish, I was appointed to a parish in the capital Lima. I arrived in the parish with enthusiasm, but I discovered that I had to learn the Peruvian way of speaking Spanish. I realized that I had to be open to new learning. I was humbled to start from zero again.

Gradually I became more familiar with the people and surroundings in Lima. I made many friends–especially among the youth. I thought I was really equipped to begin mission and ministry in a parish. But I discovered that the Pacific Regional Seminary in Suva had not prepared me for Lima's parish structures and administration. It was humbling to try to fit in with how priests and people did things here. I began to appreciate that a Columban missionary has to have ongoing formation and be open to new experiences of life and faith. We are challenged to start from zero again and again. 

Fr. Napa celebrates a Peruvian wedding. Photo: Fr. Palanapa Tavo SSC

Fr Napa celebrates a Peruvian wedding. Photo: Fr Palanapa Tavo SSC

As I came to cope with the parish structures and organization, I thought that, with my seminary training, I would have all the answers. But the people taught me to be quiet, to listen more and observe how and why they do what they do. I came to realize that the Peruvian people are very spiritual in their history, culture and traditions. Their spirituality was there before the Christian faith. It is a spirituality connected with Mother Nature and reminded me of Tongan and Oceania spirituality.

I began to see how intertwined Christian spirituality and local Peruvian spirituality are. For example, the Peruvian godparents have responsibilities not only just for the faith but also for the education and employment of their godchild. Music, dances, food and drink are very much part of the faith celebrations of the people. After the final blessing of the Mass in Peru, the people come forward to be blessed by being sprinkled with holy water. It seems that the feel of the holy water means more than the distant blessing of the priest. It used to feel funny to me, but then I opened myself to the simple, deep faith of the people. The theology and liturgy I learned in the seminary were challenged, and I returned to zero again.

The Peruvian people continue to surprise me and open my eyes to see God differently as situations change. The recent influx of Venezuelans fleeing from hunger and chaos into Peru has given me a new perspective. Peru has welcomed them even though there are millions of poor and unemployed Peruvians throughout the country. It is a difficult time for the country and the Catholic Church here, and the Church has to offer hope and good news in times of crisis.

At this time in my new parish, I am trying to listen to and guide the people to be proactive regarding life issues. Now is the time the Church has to be more prophetic, and it has to be the Good Samaritan meeting the needs of the people in the streets and alleyways away from the church buildings. The people of Peru want a Church that preaches and lives out its message where the suffering, marginalized and poor are living. We must always be ready to start from zero again.

Mission practice has changed and will continue to change. Being humbled by having to change many times is good because it tells us that it is God's mission, not ours. I am very grateful to God for all my encounters in the mission in Peru. I am grateful to the people of Peru for their openness and support in accepting me as a missionary. I thank God for the benefactors who make our journey in life possible. May God continue to bless us and the mission of Christ in the world.

Columban Fr Palanapa Tavo lives and works in Peru.

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