The Vatican (Thursday, 07-09-2015, Gaudium Press) – Pope Francis visit to Ecuador concluded yesterday with two events. The first was his visit to the Missionaries of Charity rest home for the elderly, located 21 kilometres from the capital Quito, and close to the highway leading to the airport. The Holy Father was received by the Superior, who accompanied him to the chapel in the Centre to pray with the rest of the small community of ten brethren, and subsequently greeted the residents, around seventy people, in the courtyard. He did not pronounce a discourse, but simply expressed his closeness to the elderly present.
The Pope then transferred to the National Marian shrine of El Quinche, home of the wooden image of the Virgin of El Quinche, carved at the end of the sixteenth century by the artist Diego de Robles, and which in the second week of November attracts more than 800,000 faithful who depart from the village of Calderon on a nocturnal pilgrimage, reaching the church at dawn.
In El Quinche, the last of Pope Francis’ visits in Ecuador, he met with clergy, men and women religious, and seminarians. He handed the discourse he had prepared for the occasion (reproduced below) to Bishop Celmo Lazzari C.S.I., representative for consecrated life in the Ecuadorian Episcopal Conference, and made some unscripted comments to those present, highlighting the spiritual richness that he had encountered in Ecuador and asking all to remember the importance of gratuity and service in life.
“All this wealth you have – spiritual wealth, piety, depth – comes from having had the courage, as there have been some very difficult moments, to consecrate the nation to the Heart of Christ”, said the Pope, “this divine and human Heart that loves us so much. And afterwards, a few years later, the consecration to the Heart of Mary. Do not forget: this consecration is a milestone in the history of the people of Ecuador.
“Today I am to speak to the priests, seminarians, women and men religious, and to say something to them. I thought about the Virgin, I thought about Mary … Mary never took centre stage. She was a disciple all through her life. The first disciple of her Son. And she was aware that everything she had was due to the pure gratuity of God. She was aware of this gratuity. Therefore, men and women religious, priests, seminarians, in all the days to come, take the path back to the gratuitousness with which God chose you. … We are subject to God’s gratuitousness. If we forget this, slowly, we gradually move away from the basis from which Mary never wavered: God’s gratuitousness.
“A second thing I wanted to say to you is to take care of your health, but most of all take care not to fall into a sort of spiritual Alzheimer’s: do not lose your memory, especially the memory of where you are from. St. Paul intuited this danger, and to his dearest son, the bishop Timothy, to whom he gave pastoral counsel, he said: ‘Do not forget the faith of your grandmother and your mother’. That is, ‘Do not forget where you come from, do not forget your roots, do not feel as if you have been promoted’. Gratuity is a grace that cannot co-exist with promotion and, when a priest, a seminarian, a man or woman religious, embarks upon a career – a human career – he or she begins to sicken with spiritual Alzheimer’s and begins to lose the memory of where he or she is from”.
Francis suggested two basic principles to the priests and consecrated persons. “Every day, renew the feeling that everything is free, the feeling of the gratuity with which each one of you was chosen – none of us deserved this – and ask for the grace of not losing your memory, of not feeling more important. And these two principles will revive two attitudes. First, that of service. God chose me, but why? To serve … and there is nothing else, to serve when we are tired, when people annoy us. … An old priest, who was a genius all his life, said to me, ‘the holy faithful People of God are essentially Olympian, or rather, they do what they want, and can be ontologically tiresome’. And this contains much wisdom, as taking the path of service means allowing oneself to be troubled without losing patience.
“Service, mixed with gratuity and then … that of Jesus: ‘Freely you have received; freely give’. Please, please,” he repeated, “do not expect something in return; please, let your ministry be freely given. And the second attitude … is that of joy and cheer. And it is a gift from Jesus … that He gives to us if we ask for it and if we do not forget these two pillars of our priestly or religious life: the sense of gratuity and not losing the memory of where we come from. May God Almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, bless you. And please, please, I ask you to pray for me, as I am very often tempted to forget the gratuity with which God chose me and of forgetting where I come from. Pray for me”.
The following is the written discourse the Pope gave to the bishop:
“I place at the feet of Our Lady of Quinche the vivid experiences of my visit. I entrust to her heart the elderly and the sick whom I visited in the house of the Sisters of Charity, as well as the other meetings I have had. I entrust all of them to Mary’s heart; but at the same time I commend them to the hearts of each you, the priests, men and women religious, and seminarians. As those called to labour in the vineyard of the Lord, may you be protectors of all the experiences, the joys and sorrows of the Ecuadorian people. I thank Bishop Lazzari, Father Mina and Sister Sandoval for their words, which lead me to share some thoughts on our common concern for God’s People.
“In the Gospel, the Lord invites us to accept our mission without placing conditions. It is an important message which we must never forget. Here, in this Sanctuary dedicated to Our Lady of the Presentation, it resounds in a special way. Mary is an example of discipleship for us who, like her, have received a vocation. Her trusting response, ‘Be it done unto me according to your word’, reminds us of her words at the wedding feast of Cana: ‘Do whatever he tells you’. Her example is an invitation to serve as she served.
“In the Presentation of the Virgin we find some suggestions for our own call. The child Mary was a gift from God to her parents and to all her people who were looking for liberation. This is something we see over and over again in the Scriptures. God responds to the cry of his people, sending a little child to bring salvation and to restore hope to elderly parents. The word of God tells us that, in the history of Israel, judges, prophets and kings are God’s gifts to his people, bringing them his tenderness and mercy. They are signs of God’s gratuitousness. It is he has chose them, who personally chose them and sent them. Realising this helps us to move beyond our self-centredness and to understand that we no longer belong to ourselves, that our vocation calls us to let go of all selfishness, all seeking of material gain or emotional rewards, as the Gospel has told us. We are not hired workers, but servants. We have not come to be served, but to serve, and we do so with complete detachment, without walking stick or bag.
“Some traditions about devotion to Our Lady of Quinche relate that Diego de Robles made the image after being commissioned by the indigenous Lumbici people. Diego did not do this out of piety, but for economic benefit. Since the Lumbici were unable to pay him, he brought the image to Oyacachi and exchanged it for cedar planks. But Diego ignored their earnest plea that he also make an altar for the image, until, after falling from his horse and in danger of death, he felt the protection of the Virgin Mary. So he went back to the town and built the foot of the image. All of us have had the experience of a God who brings us to the cross, who calls us in the midst of our faults and failings. May pride and worldliness not make us forget what God has rescued us from! May the Our Lady of Quinche make us leave behind ambition, selfish interests, and excessive concern about ourselves!
“The ‘authority’ which the Apostles receive from Jesus is not for their own benefit: our gifts are meant to be used to renew and build up the Church. Do not refuse to share, do not hesitate to give, do not be caught up in your own comforts, but be like a spring which spills over and refreshes others, especially those burdened by sin, disappointment and resentment.
“Something else that Our Lady’s Presentation makes me think of is perseverance. In the evocative iconography associated with this feast, the Child Mary is shown moving away from her parents as she climbs the steps of the Temple. Mary does not look back and, in a clear reference to the evangelical admonition, she moves forward with determination. We, like the disciples in the Gospel, also need to move forward as we bring to all peoples and places the Good News of Jesus. Perseverance in mission is not about going from house to house, looking for a place where we will be more comfortably welcomed. It means casting our lot with Jesus to the end. Some stories of the apparition of Our Lady of Quinche speak of ‘a woman with a child in her arms’ who appeared on several successive evenings to the natives of Oyacachi when they were fleeing from attacks by bears. Mary kept appearing to her children, but they didn’t believe her, they didn’t trust this woman, even though they admired her perseverance in coming each evening at sunset. To persevere even though we are rejected, despite the darkness and growing uncertainty and dangers – this is what we are called to do, in the knowledge that we are not alone, that God’s Holy People walks with us.
“In some sense, the image of the child Mary ascending the steps of the Temple reminds us of the Church, which accompanies and supports every missionary disciple. Mary is with her parents, who handed on to her the memory of the faith and now generously offer her to the Lord so that she can follow in his way. She is part of a community, represented by the ‘maiden companions’ who escort her with lamps alight; in those companions the Fathers of the Church saw a foreshadowing of all those who, in imitation of Mary, seek wholeheartedly to become friends of God. Finally, she is received by the waiting priests, who remind us that the Church’s pastors must welcome everyone with tender love and help to discern every spirit and every calling.
“So let us walk together, helping one another, as we humbly implore the gift of perseverance in God’s service. The apparition of Our Lady of Quinche was a moment of encounter, of communion, so that this place which from Incan times has been a place where people of various ethnicities have settled. How beautiful it is when the Church perseveres in her efforts to be a house and a school of communion, when we cultivate what I like to call “the culture of encounter”! The image of Our Lady’s Presentation tells us that, after being blessed by the priests, the child Mary began to dance at the foot of the altar. I think of the joy expressed in the imagery of the wedding feast, of the friend of the bridegroom, of the bride bedecked with her jewels. It is the happiness of all those who have discovered a treasure and left everything behind in order to gain it. To find the Lord, to dwell in his house, to share in his life, commits us to proclaiming his Kingdom and bringing his salvation to all. Crossing the threshold of the Temple means becoming, like Mary, temples of the Lord and setting out to bring the good news to our brothers and sisters. Our Lady, as the first missionary disciple, once she had received the message of the angel, left with haste to a town of Judah to share this incredible joy, which led St. John the Baptist to leap in his mother’s womb. The one who hears the Lord’s voice ‘leaps with joy’ and becomes for his or her own time a herald of his joy. The joy of evangelisation leads the Church to go forth, like Mary.
“There are many reasons offered for the translation of the shrine from Oyacachi to this place. There is one which I find particularly convincing: ‘for many people, this place has always been easier to reach’. That was the idea of the Archbishop of Quito, Fray Luis Lopez de Solis, when he ordered the building of a shrine capable of attracting and embracing everyone. A Church on the move is a Church which is close to people, overcoming obstacles, leaving its own comfort behind and daring to reach out to the peripheries which need the light of the Gospel.
“Let us now turn to the tasks which await us, urged on by the holy people which God has entrusted to our care. Among those tasks, let us not neglect to care for, encourage and guide the popular devotions which are so powerfully felt in this holy place and which are widespread in the countries of Latin America. The faithful express the faith in their own language, and they show their deepest feelings of sadness, uncertainty, joy, failure, and thanksgiving in various devotions: processions, votive lights, flowers, and hymns. All of these are beautiful expressions of their faith in the Lord and their love for his Mother, who is also our Mother.
“Here in Quinche, the story of God and man converge in the life of one woman, Mary. They come together in one home, our common home, our sister, mother earth. The traditions of this devotion speak of cedar trees, bears, the crevasse in the rock which here became the first home of the Mother of God. They speak to us of a ‘yesterday’ when birds surrounded this place, and of a ‘today’ of flowers which adorn its surroundings. The origins of this devotion bring us back to a time of simple and ‘serene harmony with creation’, when one could contemplate ‘the Creator who lives among us and surrounds us, whose presence ‘must not be contrived but found, uncovered’. God’s presence is revealed in the created world, in his beloved Son, and in the Eucharist which enables each Christian to know him or her self as living members of the Church and an active participant in her mission. And it is present in Our Lady of Quinche, who from the first proclamation of the faith until our own day has accompanied the indigenous peoples. To her we entrust our vocation; may she make us a gift to our people; may she grant us perseverance in our commitment and in the joy of going forth to bring the Gospel of her Son Jesus, together with our shepherds, to the fringes, the peripheries of our beloved Ecuador”.