Last year, Filipo, one of the catechists, told me about the catechesis camps that they used to have at the parish. Well, we decided to start them up again. That’s why we had about 380 children attending these catechism camps, as I told you about in a previous chronicle. It was a lot of work, but well worth it. The children generally live in villages that are quite a distance from the parish, so we make use of their vacation time in June to give them an intensive week of catechism. These camps we organized into ‘centers’, that is, in the villages where the surrounding smaller villages would gather. We divided 41 villages into seven centers, making a total of 48 villages.
The children are used to the idea of attending a camp, since camps are usually organized in primary school for the students finishing seventh grade. That is to say, the kids live at the school for almost a month to prepare for the final exam. In this regard the camps are very simple, allowing us to organize them without having hardly anything, or, as is the situation in some villages and centers, without having anything at all.
I am always amazed to see the kids arrive from such distant villages just to spend a week with us, some of them walking barefoot for kilometers… and they bring everything in a tiny little bag, as if it were a backpack for school. They even bring food, since we ask them to bring something to help with the cost of the camp. They bring two kilos of corn flour, a kilo of beans, and a kilo of potatoes and sweet potatoes. In some cases, the catechist comes with them, helping them to carry the food, which can be heavy. Some walk for as long as three hours to come here. I was especially moved on seeing three girls, about ten years old, who arrived at night wrapped in their “kitambaa” (colorful fabric) because it was already cold.
To sleep, they only ask that we put a plastic tarp on the ground. Some of them bring something to cover themselves and then share with the others who did not bring anything. For a pillow, they use either the clothes they have brought or the little backpack. It is remarkable to see them come with such great joy; they are happy, as if they were on an outing to an amusement park. However, it ought to be like that for them, because they come to be with us, to be with other children in a good environment—not to mention that here they receive no harsh reprimands or corporal punishment as they do at school… for them, this time is full of joy and excitement.
This year we tried to improve some things from the year before; I especially insisted on the catechists making the extra effort to send children from their own villages so they too could profit from the camp. If the children did not have the money, the catechists were asked to try to take up a collection among the faithful in the villages to help them out. Even if the contribution were small, it was still helpful, because some of the children had no money whatsoever. I decided that the parish would provide the sugar and oil for the camps at each of the seven centers. The announcements made to invite the children to the catechism camps were successful, and this year we had no less than 786 children attending the catechism camps. Do not think that all 786 children were together in one camp though; as I said before, they were divided into seven different villages.
In order to organize the camps in our village of Ibelansuha and to still be able to visit the other children, we scheduled the girls’ camp here for one week, the camp for the children in the other six centers for the following week, and the camp for boys here at Ibelansuha for the last week of June. In other words, there were eight camps. The Sisters had expressed the desire that the camp here in this village, in the center of the mission, be planned in the style of our Religious Family, meaning team competitions, games, sports, and important moments of prayer intermixed with studying catechesis. In this way, we could set an example for the other centers to imitate.
So first, it was the Sisters’ turn, with the girls’ camp; they hardly had a moment to take a breath during that week, and they really outdid themselves. I consider it a great grace that the religious were in charge of this camp. You could see a big difference from last year, and it was evident how the girls were growing spiritually as the days passed. This spiritual growth was above all due to the fact that they were here, in the center of the mission, and were thus the only children to have a church with a Tabernacle and daily Mass. We also prayed the rosary and had adoration, all of which were great graces that the children in the other centers did not have. Finally, I would like to highlight the Sisters’ work. Seventy-five girls came, and the sisters had to multitask to do everything: from tending to the pantry to giving catechism classes, organizing the games, and spending all day and even the night with the girls.
Then it was the other villages’ turn. I tried to visit each one, but I did not have the time nor the strength to get to all of them. During this time, two seminarian volunteers arrived from the United States who were able to come to visit some of the camps with me. It was their first outing, so they were extremely surprised by everything. Our visit was organized accordingly: we arrived and greeted the children in the classrooms. Then the seminarians went to play with the children while I stayed to hear the confessions of those in the Confirmation class. In some villages, we had time to celebrate Mass as well, but not in all of them. Before leaving, the Americans distributed saint medals and candy.
Finally, it was our turn for the camp. The American seminarians and some young people helped us out, as well as the catechists from the center. There was a particular need for help with the classes for the boys. Even though there were not nearly as many boys as girls (only about 48 boys), they were a challenge for us…keep in mind that our assistants were hardly trained experts. The American seminarians, Vince and Collin, were a great help with the games. The young people helped us take attendance and keep an eye on the children, but we always had to be with them and teach them how to work with the children. It was a great experience for them too.
We had the feast of Saints Peter and Paul during the camp, with the traditional “burning of the devil” (in effigy) and ensuing festivities—all of which the children look forward to every year. This also ends up being an opportunity for catechesis, even if in a rather graphic way.
Our time was filled to the brim with the Holy Mass and the Rosary, with classes and games… and the days literally flew by: the children would arrive for the Rosary while we were in adoration, and right after the benediction, we would have Mass. During the day, there were games, which helped them to build friendships among themselves and with us. I greatly enjoyed a particular Rosary we prayed one evening while walking in the beautiful twilight… it reminded me of the Rosaries we would pray with the minor seminarians at the end of the day during convivencia, along the beach at El Nihuil. Everything reminded me of the minor seminary, especially the spirit of joy, the continual ruckus, the confidence of the boys… even the good nights, the prayers, the blessing, and the song to Our Lady before going to sleep. As always, we came to the end of these three weeks very exhausted and very satisfied.
It was beautiful to be able to see the progress of the boys in these short days. When they arrived, some of them did not even know how to make the sign of the cross, or how to genuflect to Jesus in the Tabernacle, or how to participate in the Mass. However, through the contact they had with the altar boys who came every day, they picked it up immediately. It was very gratifying to see the different groups say goodbye to each other on the last day, say thank you, and then leave to walk the many kilometers back to their home villages.
From what we have experienced, we have noticed that the children in the other villages are not taught catechism in a living or engaging way, a way that is not simply a dry repetition of questions and answers. As missionaries, we must teach them salvation history, the life of Christ; we must put them in contact with Christ Himself, that they may discover the wonder of a pure, joyful, Christian life. We want the catechists to teach them how to pray so that the catechesis class may also be a school of prayer; but many times the catechists do not know that they can have processions every day, and they never think to pray morning and night prayers all together, or things like that. However, this is not unexpected: we are in mission territory and this is our task as missionaries. Moreover, we must not grow weary… because next year there may be more than 800 children. But, above all, we see that the mission continues to change little by little and that the faith of the people continues to grow and give visible fruit.
Firm in the breach!
Fr. Diego Cano, IVE