In the country of bananas, cane and cocoa
Msgr Ireneusz Skubis talks to Fr Michal Paga, OFMConv, missionary in Ecuador
MSGR IRENEUSZ SKUBIS: - How long have you been to Ecuador? What country is it and what is your pastoral work focused on?
FR MICHAL PAGA: - I went on missions in Ecuador five years ago, in 1999. Ecuador is a beautiful equatorial country, that's why the name. Its area is a bit smaller than Poland but it is culturally diversified. There are three clear climatic and cultural zones: the Andes, the coastal plain and the tropical forests of the Amazon basin. The cultural diversity makes pastoral work assume various forms. The prevailing climate in the Andes (height of 2,500-3,000 m) is rather cool or even cold. We are exactly in this climatic zone, in the town of Tulcan, located at the highest place - 3,000 m. We are working in the centre. Our pastoral work is focused on developing Franciscan spirituality; we also help in the seminary. We work with nuns who have the Franciscan spirituality (Poor Clares Nuns) and we help in the parish work. We have not got a parish but we help in diocesan centres. I must say that for us, Poles, work in this cold climate, is hard.
- What kind of people is Ecuadorians? Is the pastoral work hard? How do the diocese and seminary function?
- Pastoral work in a big town, and Tulcan is such a place, does not differ much from pastoral work in the Polish Church. But this is an exception, which does not characterise Ecuador because every place in a given climatic zone is characterised with a different dimension of pastoral work. Currently, I am working alone on the Coast, in the diocese of Santo Domingo de los Colorados, in one of the bigger towns, with a population of 300,000. The structure and work of the diocese are similar to ours. Two years ago its shepherd, Bishop Wilson Abraham Moncayo Jalil, replaced one of the most dedicated missionaries Bishop Emilio Stehle from Germany, who was connected with the Adveniat Foundation, and who built the diocesan structures from the very beginning. Today the diocese has got its curia with suitable departments, its vicar general - an Ecuadorian priest, Major Seminary for priestly formation.
However, the situation of the Church is different in various places in Ecuador due to many nations and social-economic conditions. There is no diocese in the Amazon jungle; there are only vicariates apostolic with bishops. Pastoral work is slightly different there since some elements of the administrative structure are still missing: there is a lack of priests, missionaries often change, etc.
- Can the Church in Ecuador boast of numerous vocations?
- The Ecuadorian Church cannot boast of a sufficient number of native priests. There are few vocations in the Amazon jungle and on the Coast. Fortunately, the situation is different in the mountains. There is one diocese Loja where the Ecuadorian Church has many vocations. One can even say that this is a mine of vocations in Ecuador. The highlanders are more attached to the Church, tradition and family. Whereas in those places where there is no Church structure and family has a quite different dimension there are regrettably no vocations.
- What does the economic situation of the citizens look like?
- Ecuador belongs to the poorest countries of South America. Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador are the three countries, which suffer most. The reason is social injustice. In Ecuador about 20% of inhabitants are very rich and 80% of people are very poor. Corruption is the disease that is destroying the country. One can say that one or two families govern South America. They make use of their privileged situation and social position, and through corruption they strengthen social injustice. No wonder, we still hear the echo of the theology of liberation in many places of South America.
- What do Ecuadorians think about John Paul II, especially about his social teaching?
- In Ecuador I have never heard a negative word about the ministry of the Holy Father. John Paul II visited Ecuador in 1985 and the local people warmly welcomed him
- Do the Polish missionaries feel fulfilled working in such hard conditions?
- Polish priests do not find it difficult to work on missions in Ecuador. I personally know some priests who came here over 20 years ago and have been working here up till now. One of them is Fr Zdzis?aw Rakoczy who has been involved in pastoral work in Ecuador almost all his priestly life, and he is a man of high authority in the local Church. There are priests of the dioceses of Lublin, Czestochowa, Tarnow and Elblag. We have not encountered serious difficulties to get used to the style of life and culture of this country, which differ considerably from our own ones. We, Polish Franciscans, came here in 1995 to continue the mission of the Church and to instil the presence of Conventual Franciscans in this country. Today there are here eight people from Poland, from St Maximilian Franciscan Province of Gdansk. We are working in three places: Tulcan, Santo Domingo de los Colorados and Shusku. This is typically missionary work. We are living in town and working in the vicariate, ministering in over 40 chapels in the Amazon jungle. We are working in rather harsh climatic conditions. We got various surprises. There are Shuara Indians here and there are also people who left for that zone in the Amazon jungle to work on the land and thus contribute to the development of this part of the country.
- Are you in touch with other priests of your Congregation who work in other countries?
- Of course. There are priests of the Krakow Province in Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay. In the beginning our brothers from Peru helped us a lot. Last year I attended a six-month course for educators that was organised for the religious men and women by the Bishops' Conference of Bolivia. I lived among our brothers, saw and got to know their work. Our St Maximilian Province and our mission in Ecuador collaborate in the field of formation with brothers from Spain. They have their own vice-province - custody in Columbia. Our seminarians study with other brothers in Bogota, the capital of Columbia, because we have not got the possibility to form seminarians in Ecuador yet.
- And how do you get on with local bishops?
- Generally speaking, we are welcomed in various parts of this country. Sometimes bishops ask about our Congregation because our habits express a special charisma. We owe our presence in Tulcan to the bishop of one Ecuadorian diocese who invited us since he himself is a Franciscan tertiary.
- What can one say about youth ministry in Ecuador?
- Youth ministry is especially connected with the sacrament of confirmation. In the place where we work the youth ministry is limited to secondary schools. Young people in South America are spontaneous, amused and happy, which is also expressed in liturgy. I think one of the obstacles to develop youth ministry is a financial problem. Certainly, we can organise some trips or pilgrimages or some other meetings and that is connected with finances and the local people are very poor.
- Are there any Catholic media in Ecuador? Can you listen to for example Radio Maryja?
- The Ecuadorian Church has its own Catholic radio. I have mentioned Fr Zdzislaw
Rakoczy who operates a local Catholic television station. Here we can also watch the Catholic television of Mother Angelica from the United States. Radio Maryja is present, too. I have the privilege to collaborate with it. It is growing quite well. Once I visited our communities in the Amazon jungle. In places without electricity and no other radio programmes it was nice to listen to Radio Maryja in our car. The local people told us that they listened to this radio, too. The situation with press is worse. The periodicals, which are available there, are published only in Columbia. However, they are partly about the Church in Ecuador. There are no newspapers. We have 'Infronteras', magazine of the Combonian Missionaries of the Heart of Jesus. In Ecuador we receive 'The Knight of the Immaculata', which is published in Paraguay.
The Internet is developing more and more. The Ecuadorian Church will have a new web, including archives, pastoral work and various documents in one programme.
- Is there Polonia - Polish immigrants in Ecuador?
- Yes, there is. We, Conventual Franciscans, work in the Ecuadorian Polonia. In this country there is no embassy, no consulate. There is only an honorary consul Mr Tomasz Morawski. We celebrate Mass in Polish every first Sunday of the month in the Salesian church in Quito, capital of Ecuador. And we also meet on the occasions of Polish national holidays: May 3rd, November 11th and St Nicholas' Day on 6th December. Moreover, we celebrate midnight Mass at Christmas. So there is pastoral work among Polish immigrants in Ecuador.
- Thank you very much for the interesting conversation, which has introduced this country, little known and yet beautiful. We wish you that the mission you, as Polish missionaries, carry out there would be as useful as possible for the Church and for Poland.