Lessons from South America

MARY CULLEN. At February’s meeting of the Glasgow Newman Circle, Fr Timothy Curtis SJ offered a theological reflection on his experience as parish priest in Guyana, drawing out lessons for the Catholic Church in Scotland as it faces the challenge of parishes without priests.

On the face of it, Fr Tim Curtis’ parish in the interior of Guyana (which incorporated ‘bits of Brazil and Venezuela’) has little in common with Scotland except for its land mass, which is almost identical.  But while Scotland has a population of over five million, the Guyana parish has 34,400, closer to the Catholic population of the dioceses of Aberdeen and Argyll and the Isles, scattered across a land of rainforest, mountains and plains.  Lessons for Scotland, Fr Tim suggested, can be learned from the way in which the Guyana Catholic community developed from its days as a Jesuit Mission in 1904..

The first stage of its development, evangelisation, was led by Fr Cuthbert Cary-Elwes SJ, who was born in Boulogne in 1867 and educated at Stonyhurst College.  The nephew of a Jesuit Bishop in India, Cary-Elwes entered the Society of Jesus with the desire to die a martyr in mission territory.  He was ordained a priest in London in 1900.

He was sent to Guyana in 1904 and travelled inland in 1908 where he established many ‘Catholic’ communities among the Amerindians, who had had little contact with the West and none with Christianity.  Each community built a church, said daily prayers, and the children were offered baptism after a year if the community maintained its common prayer life.  A ‘one wife’ policy was introduced.  Fr Cary-Elwes had a breakdown and returned to England in 1923, where he worked on a Makushi dictionary and composed hymns in the Wapishana language.  He died in Glasgow in August 1945.

Between 1922 and 1939, other priests were sent to Guyana, where they visited villages on foot or on horseback.  Each village had a church.  The Amerindians adopted Western dress and the missionaries a relationship with the country’s ranchers.  During the war years of 1939-45, when many Jesuits were withdrawn from the interior to become chaplains, the communities continued to meet and pray and maintain their churches.

After the war came the second stage of development: education.  A new influx of priests arrived to serve the Amerindian people, many of whom were ex-army chaplains, used to getting things done.  It was decided that each ‘Catholic’ village should have a primary school and the medium of teaching would be English.  Amerindian teachers were recruited.

Between 1945 and 1968, the Catholic Church built and ran over 50 primary schools, in which preparation for the sacraments was carried out.  Many of the teachers were Amerindians from the North West, who did not speak the same language; soon everyone had a command of English.

In 1966 Guyana gained its independence from the UK and a Socialist government was elected.  A ranchers uprising in 1969 was put down, and priests were expelled from the interior because of their relationship with the ranchers.  They continued to serve on the coast and the Amerindians continued to meet and pray and wait for the priests to come back and baptise the children.

With the government’s decision to take over schools in 1972, the third stage of the church’s development began – the lay formation of adults.  Vatican II had already given a more prominent role to lay people in the church, and in the parish in Guyana, a three day seminar become the staple tool for the formation of parish teams, attended by groups of over 60 people.  The parish team included a chairperson, a treasurer, parish lay assistants, catechists, eucharistic ministers, a presider, readers, decorators, collectors, flower girls, altar servers and musicians.  Seminars were directed at different levels.

Training for parish lay assistants required attendance at two three month courses and an annual top up, held either at one of three centres or in the local village.  Courses included bible study, catechism, preparing people for the sacraments of baptism, confession, communion, confirmation and marriage, and conducting a Sunday service or a funeral.  Nearly all funerals are conducted by lay people.  Typically the whole parish team would meet on a Saturday to prepare the Sunday service, reading the word, sharing its meaning, choosing hymns, writing bidding prayers and choosing ministries.

Gradually, Jesuits from India replaced those from the UK.  The next stage of development will begin with a focus on responsibility for schools, the challenges of a cash economy, income generation projects and helping Amerindians take control of their lives.

The lessons to be learnt from the Guyana parish experience?  Disasters can become opportunities.  When Fr Cary-Elwes left, other priests came.  When they left, lay people took charge of their communities.  When the schools were no longer the focus of evangelisation, adult faith formation was developed.  When the ranchers fled, there was control of the land.

It became clear that Catholic communities can take responsibility for their church buildings and for handing on the faith.  They can also take responsibility for celebrating it.

Asked what steps the church in Scotland might take to make the transition from the old to a new model of church, Fr Curtis suggested that we need to redefine the role of the priest, accept that people can look after churches, and do some historical analysis to understand where we come from.

Fr Timothy Curtis SJ is parish priest and Jesuit superior at St Aloysius Church, Glasgow.

Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.