On Monday night, February 5th, Eliseo Troestch greeted Emmet Nolan and me at Tocumen Airport in Panama and whisked us off to Colon, where my visitation of the Region of Panama began. The confreres of the house (and Tom Sendlein who was visiting from the States) welcomed us with abrazos and pizza, which was soon followed by a good night’s sleep.
After prayers and breakfast, the first thing on Tuesday’s agenda was a visit to our Province’s newest mission. Since it is situated on the other side of the canal, Norberto Abrego drove Eliseo and me down to a ferry, allowing me to see the canal from a completely new vantage point, before continuing to the church of Santa Maria de Belen in Escobal, in the Diocese of Colon-Kuna Lana. I would characterize Escobal as a quaint, small village, yet it is the hub for about 30 smaller villages, all of which are in the “zona de lagos”, where the lakes which feed the canal are located. In the front yard of many houses you could see small canoes which the people use to go fishing. The church itself is small but has room for expansion. The rectory/parish center, while in need of some repairs, has a number of rooms which offer great opportunities for meetings and religious formation.
Eliseo and Norberto have only been there for one month, but already can envision many pastoral opportunities for the future. Especially inviting is the nearby lay formation center (also in need of “fixing up”) which can accommodate 120 people for courses, retreats and workshops. The city of Colon has visibly deteriorated since my last visit some 20 years ago. The streets are in worse shape and there is an effort by the government to move the poor out of the city to newer houses which are being built. It remains to be seen what effect that will have on our works there.
On Wednesday morning, we all travelled to Balboa, where, joined by the confreres there, Emmet Nolan facilitated the first regional planning conversation in our pastoral planning process. After Emmet’s introduction, the confreres divided into two groups before coming back to share their thoughts for our future. Juventino Castillero and Jose Pio Jimenez are presently stationed at St. Mary’s Parish in Balboa, which also hosts the residence for our seminarians who are studying Philosophy and Theology at San Jose Major Seminary. Adrian Alonso and Olmedo Guerra had just returned from their summer apostolic experience and two weeks of vacation with their families and were getting ready to start their third year of Theology on February 19th. It was great to speak with them. Their love of their vocation and their enthusiasm to serve the poor is infectious.
Another very interesting part of the visitation was my first visit ever to the Comarca of Soloy where Joe Fitzgerald ministers to the Ngäbe people, a large indigenous community. From a high mountain road, Joe showed me a view of a vast expanse of tree covered hills. Although I could only see a few houses, he explained that about 25,000 people lived there and pointed out the more distant areas which he could only reach by horseback. The Ngäbe people have a deep appreciation for the balance of nature and the cyclic rhythm of life. Joe’s understanding of the culture and values of the people is a great asset to his ministry.