HERMOSILLO, Mexico — After climbing a hill, three young men knocked at the dilapidated door of the only house in this outlying rural area. There was no reply from inside — but one of the boys happened to look through the window and saw a man in bed. He didn’t look well.
Half an hour later, a priest administered the last rites to the dying man just a few minutes before he passed away.
There are a lot of stories like this after the door-to-door missions organized by Youth and Missionary Families for the Third Millennium, an international network of lay missionaries sponsored by the Legionaries of Christ and Regnum Christi, the Legion’s movement of apostolate.
Since its founding in 1993, the network has trained 50,000 lay catechists, 170,000 youth and 20,000 families to help foster the Catholic faith in 7 million houses in 20,000 towns of 30 countries.
With its headquarters in Atlanta, the American branch of the organization sponsors missions in the United States, Canada and Mexico (see YTM.org).
Every year, the network’s evangelizing effort reaches its peak in what is called “Megamissions.” Throughout the academic year, thousands of families and young people in the United States, Mexico and eight other countries are trained to spend Holy Week doing door-to-door missions.
Every missionary receives a package — a prayer book, a mission guidebook, a wooden cross and the network’s uniform that includes a white T-shirt, a cap and a red bandanna to wear around the neck.
The youth and the families officially start their missionary work with a noon Mass on the Saturday before Palm Sunday, during which the wooden cross to hang from one’s neck is blessed and given out. In Mexico City, more than 10,000 missionaries attend the “Mission” Mass at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
This year, 55,000 young Mexicans and a few thousand Americans spent their spring-break vacations on Megamissions — preaching the Gospel among 1.5 million poor people in more than 2,000 small towns.
Many priests are needed to administer the sacraments during the week-long Megamissions. To help out, I flew from Rome to Mexico with 27 other Legionary priests.
I spent Holy Week in five towns of 2,000 inhabitants each in the state of Sonora, in the north of Mexico. I arrived there with five teams of 12 to 15 boys, ages 16 to 22, from Hermosillo, the capital city of Sonora. Our mission territory was once inhabited by the Yaqui Indians, who in the past killed many Spanish missionaries before they converted to the Catholic faith.
“I came here expecting to give away something of what I have,” said Jesús Ontiveros, a 20-year-old missionary. “In the end, I received more than what I could give. People’s simplicity and thirst for God taught me a great deal.”
“Me too,” added José Guillot, a high-school senior. “I felt the need to learn more about my faith so as to preach it.”
Townspeople keep centuries-old traditions, such as the living Stations of the Cross and a Holy Saturday silent procession following a statue of Our Lady — a way to accompany the Mother of Christ in her sorrow.
Throughout the week, I heard more than 300 confessions. The seriously ill were anointed. I gave the last rites to an old lady who passed away at the end of the Easter Vigil Mass.
The missionaries’ life is not easy. They come from middle-class and well-off families, yet in the towns they sleep on the floor of dusty schools or abandoned houses without running water. They eat whatever people offer them.
The poor, however, tend to be generous and grateful and give them the best they can — tacos, frijoles, tamales, lemonade. Sometimes, the missionaries don’t get much time to sleep — during Holy Thursday night they go to adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in one-hour shifts.
I heard no complaint about the rough conditions.
“Living here for a week was an eye-opener to me,” said Andrés Landiere, a college student. “I learned how to appreciate God’s gifts to me and also learned that material goods are not necessary to be happy.”
Last year, I did missions in four towns of the state of Tabasco, in the southeast of Mexico, with 21 missionary families from Villahermosa, the state’s capital city. The families had 50 children with them, ages two to 17.
“I envy my three kids,” said Roberto Díaz, the leader of the missionary families. “As an adult, I had to work hard on getting to know and spread my faith. My children, instead, are growing up doing missions. For them, evangelizing is the most natural thing.”
By joining their parents on their week-long missions, children benefited in other ways, too.
“My two little daughters come with us when we visit people in their houses,” said Alfredo Carvallo. “In this way, Lorena and Sofía learn to share what they have with the less fortunate and appreciate more the gifts God has given them.”
“They also learn good lessons from the poor,” added Nelly, Alfredo’s wife. “To thank us, some of the families we visited gave us a chicken or a few hundred pesos — dozens of dollars — practically all they had to live on for the next couple of days.”
The exposure to a priest’s work is a natural way to foster vocations. On those days, two 13-year-old missionary boys and a 15-year-old boy from a town told me they were seriously considering becoming priests and had to visit a seminary.
Many of the missionaries volunteer to take part in a follow-up program by which they commit themselves to go back to the same towns for a few hours every other week of the year. In this way, they make sure the seeds sown during the Megamissions do not die out but rather bear fruit over time.
Parish priests are most grateful.
“I am the only priest in the area in charge of 10 towns,” Father Rodrigo Morales told me. “Having other priests celebrating the sacraments and missionaries preaching the Gospel in my towns was an unexpected, God-sent blessing.”
As I flew back from Mexico to Rome, I thought how right John Paul II was when he wrote in his 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio (The Mission of the Redeemer): “Missionary activity renews the Church, revitalizes faith and Christian identity, and offers fresh enthusiasm and new incentive. Faith is strengthened when it is given to others!”
Legionary Father Alfonso Aguilar teaches philosophy at Rome’s
Regina Apostolorum University.