Secretariat for the Church in Latin America Encourages 'One America'

LIMA, Peru — When Holy Cross Father James Phalan met Fiorela in a hospital in Lima, Peru, several years ago, she was 10 years old and sick with leukemia.

Neither she nor her family knew how to pray the rosary. But that changed after Father Phalan handed them the beads and taught them the prayers.

Fiorela soon loved to say the rosary, and so she asked Father Phalan to bring more beads for the other children in the cancer ward. She taught the other kids herself before she died, said Father Phalan, who has been based in Lima since 1990.

As the director of the Family Rosary Apostolate, which is sponsored by Holy Cross Family Ministries, Father Phalan understands why people develop a special devotion to the Blessed Mother. It also explains why he's so grateful to the Secretariat for the Church in Latin America, which is a part of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Every year since 1966, usually during the third weekend of January, the secretariat has sponsored a Sunday collection that has raised and distributed nearly $100 million in grants to support pastoral programs approved by local bishops in Central and South America, Mexico and the Caribbean.

In 2002, Father Phalan's apostolate received a $24,000 grant that allowed it to buy and distribute 200,000 plastic rosaries along with instructional brochures throughout Peru, Father Phalan said.

For millions of Catholics throughout the countries where the secretariat provides grants, their needs are often far greater than the funds raised, which has been averaging about $6 million for the past several years, said Daniel Lizarraga, the secretariat's executive director.

A lot of them are poor, uneducated and living in countries that are often marred by violent political struggles. A lot of them also don't live in areas that have the kind of resources Americans are accustomed to and often take for granted.

“Many of us have a local church that has a roof and walls,” said J.L. Drouhard, the director of the missions office for the Archdiocese of Seattle. “There are Catholic schools nearby. There's a hospital clinic. But in Latin America that's not the case in many places, so how can we, on a Sunday morning, sit in our comfortable, well-lit, well-heated or well-air-conditioned church and not feel some sort of solidarity with our fellow Catholics in Latin America, who may not have that ability to gather together for a liturgy or not have access to a full religious education program or youth ministry for their teen-agers?“

That's why the secretariat funds projects that include the following categories: catechetics, religious education, evangelization, pastoral, development of lay leadership, seminary formation and deacon preparation.

Evangelization

One of the biggest challenges the Church faces in Latin America is the various Christian denominations that are preaching their own brand of religion, Lizarraga said.

“The local churches are trying to find ways to respond effectively in evangelizing those who are within and inviting people to return to the faith,” he said.

The Church in North and South America is still responding to Pope John Paul II's 1999 apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America (The Church in America). The document calls upon Catholics in the two Americas and the Caribbean to foster a closer bond and to experience conversion, communion and solidarity. It also encourages them to view themselves as being part of “a single entity” — one America.

Because of the political and economic turmoil common in many South American and Caribbean countries, many young people there grow up with a lot of despair, Lizarraga said.

“They're trying to search for some sense of hope in their lives and their communities, and often the only existing place they can do that is the Church,” he said. “If the [local] Church is not able to or doesn't have the resources to do that, it's our responsibilities, as brothers and sisters in the United States, to share some of our blessings.”

But the blessings can also be a two-way street, he added.

“Anyone who has gone to Latin America will know the deep sense of faith that people have there,” he said, “and that's what I think we in the North can receive.”

Carlos Briceño writes from Seminole, Florida.

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