“You cross the Amazon jungle, climb 5,000 metres above sea level, in the Andes Mountains, you head into the desert. You are now in what Pope Francis calls ‘the land of saints’”, says Luis Vildoso, director of projects for the international charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) in Peru.
In an interview with ACN, following his recent trip to Peru, Luis Vildoso described the work and the pastoral challenges that the Church faces in distant regions such as the Vicariate of Yurimaguas (in the Loreto region), and in the Moyobamba Prelature (in the region of San Martín), as well as in the Huancané Prelature (in the region of Puno).
ACN: There are several very old dioceses in Peru, such as Cuzco and Lima, which were erected in 1536 and 1541, respectively. What role does the Catholic Church play in Peru today?
Luis Vildoso: The Peruvian society recognises the Church’s value and great importance. You need only visit cities such as Lima, Cuzco or Arequipa to see its presence in the chapels, in the names of streets and districts, and in the legacy of over 50 Peruvian saints, Blesseds and Venerables.
When we were speaking to some foreign missionaries in the country, they told us that the Church in Peru is like a garden that needs to be cared for and watered, because it is quite easy to proclaim the faith, and there is a great thirst for God, and popular piety.
The Church is present where no other institution goes. The Church has played a pivotal role in the evangelisation of the Peruvian Amazon, in the southern Andes and in some peripheral urban regions; and is dedicated to evangelising and serving the material and spiritual needs of the population. According to the witnesses of love and commitment that many people shared with us, I am convinced that these priests and missionaries see the face of Jesus reflected in these people, who have a great thirst for God.
How do the laypeople cooperate with the Church’s mission?
Pope Francis said that Peru is a “land of saints”, and this is reflected in the expressions of faith one can see in different places. During our trip it was beautiful to see how in the Amazon it is the laypeople who keep the Church alive. They are true heroes, the guardians of the faith in each community, because there are hardly any priests or religious. It is the laypeople who celebrate the liturgy of the word, for instance, and they express their faith with joy, so that the people do not lose theirs.
When we visited the Apostolic Vicariate of Yurimaguas, we happened to coincide with a formation session for lay animators, which had the support of ACN, and it was very interesting to see how they were being given Biblical formation to accompany and sustain their communities, which are faced with the profusion of sects.
Was there anything during the trip that especially caught your attention?
I have fond memories of our trip through the Santiago Apóstol de Huancané prelature. We had breakfast with a priest in his parish house, and with a family that is responsible for looking after the church. When we finished speaking, and they had told us about all their needs, we went to the church that is located next to the house. As soon as we entered, the whole family fell to its knees and began to pray in Quechua. They exuded a very deep sense of religiosity and reverence, because they realised that they were in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.
I should also mention the missionaries, including foreigners who serve in very remote places. It was definitely an experience that shook my heart. But, at the same time, it was a reminder of how tough mission is. These people risk their lives. In some places, such as on the road to Sandia, for instance, in the Huancané prelature, the road runs next to a deep precipice, and many of the roads are not even paved. The missionaries travel great distances, and weather a merciless climate. They travel through the fog, exposed to the sun and to the cold of the mountains. They are willing to endure these extreme conditions to live with and serve the neediest.
What are the greatest challenges for the Peruvian Church?
One of the first challenges is that in all the places we visited there was a great shortage of clergy and religious. The second challenge is the contrast between the rich cultural heritage and natural resources, and the social injustice and inequality. And amidst all this painful reality, the Church is evangelising, proclaiming values and accompanying these people. The poverty is also a great difficulty for the local Church, because in places such as those that we visited, the communities don’t generate enough resources to provide for their priests or for the pastoral work. Finally, some of the Peruvian mission zones are very distant, and difficult to get to, whether at the top of the Andes or in the depths of the jungle. There are also communities that can only be reached by crossing rivers.
In Arequipa we visited a cloistered monastery of the Congregation of the Justinian Canonesses Regular, whose vocation is to pray for the clergy. This made me think that on one hand there is a shortage of priests and religious, but on the other, we have the contemplative Church praying for the Lord to send workers to his field.
How is ACN helping the Church in Peru?
ACN’s contribution to the country goes back several years. The impact of this assistance can be seen in the formation of the clergy, which is still ongoing. In many places the priests will tell you that they managed to complete their training because of ACN. The training of seminarians is one of our priorities. We need to recognise the importance of faith formation and take Pope Francis’ words, that this is a “land of saints”, seriously.
It was beautiful to see that in places like the Huancané prelature the congregation of the Missionaries of Jesus Word and Victim manage the distribution of ACN publications such as the “Children’s Bible”, “I Pray the Rosary”, “I Believe”, and “YouCat”. The sisters use them, for instance, in the spiritual accompaniment of the population.