‘A matter for all Christians’
A Christendom student reflects on her time in the Dominican Republic.
On the one year anniversary of the election of Pope Francis, I sat in a small dusty church in the town of Bánica, Dominican Republic, with a native boy, about 8 years old, by my side. The sun was setting, and a warm breeze came through the openings where windows would be if they had glass. As Father Keith M. O’Hare, a priest of the Arlington Diocese, began the opening prayer and greeting in Spanish, I caught him say something about “Papa Francisco,” followed by an eruption of cheers from all the faithful churchgoers who clearly had caught something I had missed. When he got to the homily, Father O’Hare explained to us in English that today was the anniversary of the pope’s election. He then went on to give one of the most inspiring homilies I have ever heard. He issued a challenge to all of us, basing it off the pope’s “Evangelii Gaudium,” one that hit home with me: Give the most to those who materialistically can return the least, for “you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Lk 14:14).
In “Evangelii Gaudium,” Pope Francis says, “The Gospel joy which enlivens the community of disciples is a missionary joy.” This could not have been made more obvious throughout the trip. Not only was Father O’Hare radiant with a zealous happiness, but also the people. It was impossible not to be affected by the simple and real joy that seeped from the walls of the church and out into the streets and homes and families. When I talked to my mom over the phone about how incredible the trip had been, she said that she noticed in the pictures that I looked genuinely and deeply happy. It is so hard for me to put into words just how amazing that feeling was. In actuality, it was not a feeling at all, but rather a much deeper reality.
At the same time, we spread this joy by giving the community physical assistance that verified their dignity as daughters and sons of God. One of the ways we did this was by installing cement flooring where loose and dusty dirt lay. I had expected “dirt floors” to mean a very worn and padded down space, but I was shocked when I realized that these people slept, cooked and lived on something altogether different. Throughout the week we did a total of 14 houses. At one house, an elderly woman explained to me that, even though she was hungry much of the time, she praised God that now at least she had beautiful new floors. It was so humbling to see how cement flooring, something that many Americans do not even have in their basements anymore, could mean so much to someone.
My favorite part of the mission trip most certainly had to be the children we saw every day who lived in the town. Some of them lived in the houses that we worked on, but all of them were in need materially. As the week progressed, we grew close to them, some of us ending up with favorites. We would go to a local field and play soccer and give the toddlers piggyback rides and then carry some, race some and walk with some to the tiny chapel for evening Mass. It was the closest I have ever come to the concept of, “Make a friend, be a friend, bring your friend to Christ.” The incredible thing is that, as I did this for them, they were simultaneously doing this for me by showing me God in a whole new and richer way.
On one of the first nights, we drove to a different town for Mass in our camino, which is the combination of a dump truck and a pick-up. As soon as some of our group got out of the back, little children who had been watching us approach swarmed them to be played with and held. I stood in the church garden and observed an adorable little boy wearing a worn green polo. I found out later his name was Damien and sat him down on my lap in our pew. During the whole Mass, he sat there, and when we had to stand, I would hold him in my arms. When I got back from Communion, I held him on my lap, rubbing his back, and suddenly I was overcome with a rush of Christ’s omnipotence and unconditional love. Here was this child, made just like me in the image and likeness of God. He was so tiny and dark, with sparkling eyes and a little smirk. As I consumed the host, I started to cry as I tried to wrap my mind, or rather my heart, around the reality that as I received Christ in the Eucharist, I was holding in my lap the most beautiful piece of Him I had ever seen.
In “Christifideles Laici,” Pope John Paul II wrote: “It is of particular importance that all Christians be aware that through baptism they have received an extraordinary dignity: through grace we are called to be children loved by God the Father, members incorporated in Christ and His church, living and holy temples of the Spirit.”
This extraordinary dignity is something that must be instilled in all people, particularly through the preaching of the Gospels. But as is often said, “Preach the Gospel, and when necessary, use words.” Throughout the week, I really did not do much if any verbal teaching of the word of God, but I hope that my actions made people, especially the children, feel His word in their hearts. The irony for me, and probably that which I had to grapple with the most, was feeling like I was always the one being helped the most, being shown Christ the most. It was as though I was both the recipient and the doer of Christ’s decree in the Gospel of Mark, to “go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation.”
One of the valuable lessons I took away from the trip was the importance of being able to communicate with the people in their own tongue. I wondered how limited Father O’Hare would be if he could not speak SpanishBánica, how his role as preacher, teacher and shepherd of the people would be limited. Having studied Spanish for five years, I was able to communicate with children and adults throughout the week. I realized how important it is to know the language of the people to whom we are evangelizing. It is not a coincidence that the first gift the apostles received after Pentecost was the gift of tongues.
We only spent one week in Bánica and the surrounding villages, but in that time I learned and grew so much in my understanding of Christ’s missionary mandate. On the last night with the children, I cried a lot, realizing that I may never see them again in this life. The deeper reason I was saddened, though, was because I felt like I was saying goodbye to a new aspect of God that I had discovered in them. While we had helped them all week by laying floors and playing with them, they had evangelized me all the more. They put into my heart in one week the seed of missionary activity. It was a life-changing insight when I grasped Pope John Paul II’s words from “Redemptoris Missio,” that “missionary activity is a matter for all Christians.” There I was, in a Third World nation, on a spring break mission trip, being taught more about Christ and His love by these wonderful, beautiful people than I ever would have anticipated. It was a remarkable relationship of evangelizing and being evangelized. It taught me that anyone and everyone who has been baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is a missionary, whether they are in a foreign land or in their own newly cemented home.
Bridget Handy is a freshman at Christendom College in Front Royal.