Visiting the Church in Guatemala, Part One: The Coast and Amatitlan

Note: This post was originally located on the author's seminary blog and is now reposted here on Mayan Orthodoxy for background info.

Greetings to all from Aguacate, Guatemala, a small little town close to the border of Mexico. I am currently staying with a priest who pastors the communities in this area, and I am traveling with him as he goes to visit the different parishes. A lot has happened since I wrote last—what a whirlwind. I'd say it's practically been a tornado, but it's one that I'm quite happy to be trapped in! In this post, I'll speak a little bit about the first five days of travels with the bishop, Metropolitan Athenagoras, as we began to visit some of the communities that make up the Orthodox church in Guatemala.

The bishop arrived on Friday, June 15th, and we made our first visit on Saturday, traveling just ten or twenty minutes to a town called Pinula. The parish there was the very first parish that Fr. Andres led after he had left the Roman Catholic Church. I still haven't gotten the full scoop on the early history of his parishes, but his split from the Roman Catholic Church was connected with the Campesino movement (a struggle for land for some of the poorest farmers) and also with the charismatic movement. For various reasons, the parishes that came under his wing were already estranged from the Catholic Church. I don't understand all of the causes of that estrangement, but the people I've talked to in many of the parishes say that they were being neglected and abandoned by their Roman Catholic bishops. From what I've gathered, that neglect was in part due to a reaction against the type of charismatic spirituality practiced by some of the parishes, and also in other cases it was due to political pressure that was being put on some of the communities. However, as I said, I don't know the full story yet.

The parish at Pinula

At the parish in Pinula, we had a vespers service, preceded by speeches from Fr. Andres and Metropolitan Athenagoras. Two things stand out in my memory of this visit. First, Fr. Andres is a powerful speaker, and I could tell from the first moment of his speech in Pinula that the communities are deeply bonded to him. He begins slowly, then starts to raise his voice as he bats at the air, points vehemently at the crowd, and shouts out moving words. There is an ebb and flow: at some points Fr. Andres shows his tender side, speaking softer words from his heart, then at other points he raises his voice in a series of shouts that seem to come from a military man. Finally, he builds up to a crescendo at the end of his speech and often finishes by shouting, “ahora! y siempre! y por LOS SIGLOS DE LOS SIGLOS!!!!” (In Enlgish: now! and ever! and unto the ages of ages!) And the crowd responds with a shout: “AMEN!!!!!”

Fr. Andres speaking in Pinula

The second thing that struck me at Pinula, as well as at the other parishes, was the mixture of Roman Catholic and Orthodox practices. As you can see from the pictures below (click on any photo to expand), the parishes have artwork and statuary that are characteristic of Roman Catholic practices. They also have rosary beads, many parishes use Roman Catholic hymnals, and the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is punctuated with different fragments from the Roman Catholic mass (e.g., after Scripture readings, the reader says “The word of the Lord,” and the people respond, “Thanks be to God”). The truth is that many of the communities are still very much Roman Catholic, and others have been influenced by other religious practices as well. Yet, they have not accepted the Orthodox Church through compulsion; they eagerly embrace it and so far have taken well to some of the changes that have been made to bring their practices more into Orthodox tradition.

On Sunday, we visited a really large parish in Málaga, where Metropolitan Athenagoras ordained the parish priest, Fr. Antonio, as a deacon (I'll explain that in just a second!). As soon as we arrived in the town and began our long “entry” walk to the parish, it started to rain cats and dogs and we all got drenched. That's how things are on the coast of Guatemala: the weather is unpredictable, the roads uncooperative, and the heat and humidity are unforgiving. I always remind myself of how important flexibility and patience are out here in a missionary Church.

The parish in Málaga

The people gave us a very warm
"bienvenidos!" ("Welcome!")

As I mentioned, the parish priest was ordained as a deacon, or as the parishioners called it, he was “reconfirmed.” Fr. Antonio is one of the priests here who were ordained by Fr. Andres when Fr. Andres was the non-cononical bishop of the Orthodox parishes here in Guatemala, before the parishes came into the canonical Orthodox Church. Because of this situation, leniency has been exercised as the ordinations are called “reconfirmations” (Metropolitan Athenagoras himself refers to them as such) and as Fr. Andres is referred to as the bishop, although he has not been ordained as a bishop in the canonical Orthodox Church.

Fr. Antonio being ordained/reconfirmed

On Monday and Tuesday, the reconfirmations continued (Fr. Antonio was made a priest, along with others). These took place in the Antiochian monastery on Lake Amatitlan that is run by the nuns who founded the Orthodox orphanage in Guatemala City. Fr. Andres and Madre Ines, the abbess of the monastery, deliberately sought for the ordinations to take place there in the monastery as a symbol of Orthodox unity in Guatemala. The parishes under Fr. Andres have been accepted into the Church under Metropolitan Athenagoras, who represents the Ecumenical Patriarch (the Greek Orthodox Church), but the nuns are under the Antiochian bishop of Mexico (the Arabic Orthodox Church, to speak loosely). The fact that Metropolitan Athenagoras ordained his own clergy in a church under the Antiochian bishop is a symbol of the hope that Fr. Andres has for a unified Church in Guatemala.

The outside view of the monastery church

The inside view

One of the ordinations at the monastery

While we were at the monastery, Madre Ines gave some of us a tour of the grounds and of the new orphanage building that is being constructed there on Lake Amatitlan. I saw the grounds in 2009, but I was happy to see the progress that is being made on the new orphanage. It will be a wonderful location for the children to live!

Part of the new orphanage being built

Madre Ines showing us around

Here is our little tour group, standing in front of Lago Amatitlan.
From left to right: Fr. Mihael, Madre Ines, Fr. Antonio,
and some guy who looks an awful lot like me

Well, that wraps up this post. In the next one, we will move from the lower regions of Guatemala to the highlands, way up in the mountains of Guatemala. There in the highlands, Metropolitan Athenagoras continued his visits to different parishes, and some of the gatherings had upwards of one thousand people. I'll save the details for text time. Until then, Dios les bendiga, and keep the people here in your prayers!