This article first appeared in the Winter 2019-2020 issue of COMBONI MISSIONS
Petén: Guatemala’s hidden “Amazon”
|On top of Temple IV at Tikal in 2009|
On Easter Monday 2016, I concluded my visit to my earlier mission post in San Luis Petén, Guatemala, with a “pilgrimage” to Tikal, the ruins of one of the main cities of the ancient Maya empire.
TIKAL! The Temple of the Jaguar! Not too long before my visit, Morgan Freeman had his picture taken in front of this pyramid while seeking inspiration for his National Geographic series on God. The reason? He was about to debunk a Hollywood theory. According to Hollywood malarkey and the movie “2012,” a Maya prophecy foretold that the world would end on December 21, 2012. It didn’t and my former parishioners are still laughing about it.
Tikal and Petén are very ancient, remote and challenging. In 2005, a season of “Survivor” was filmed in Petén. Two of our young parishioners, who worked with the tourist bureau, were hired by the team. The place was so remote, they told me, that Survivor people “really” got lost, “really” had sun strokes, “really” faced an unexpected croc in the pond. Yet, the place is still alive and life giving.
So, while tourists braved 90+ degree temperatures to climb the 200 steps of the tallest temple, I sat in the shade of a massive centuries-old ceiba. From there, I followed the members of an extended Maya family as they prayed to God and honored Mother Earth, turning to the four corners of the earth with raised hands and offering a burning sacrifice of corn, cacao, beans, candles and incense.
The scene brought back a flood of feelings about my own interaction with Petén and its people. The descendants of the Maya of old, the Queq’chi and Mopan in particular, are still remote, alive and well and I, as a Comboni Missionary, was privileged to share their life from 2007 to the end of 2010.
As I look back on my experience in the light of the recently completed Synod for the Amazon, Irealize that Petén is one of the many unknown, smaller, hidden - yet not less important for this – “Amazons” of the world.
The department of Petén covers one third of Guatemala’s territory, yet it is home to less than 15% of its population. History books and tourist guides seem to ignore what happened in Petén between the Spanish conquest over 500 years ago and the 1950s, when settlers from the south started moving in searching for a new life and a piece of land. Settlers have learned to live side by side with the indigenous people, who took to the hills and the forest centuries ago, to avoid contact with the Spanish armies. The rocky soil, the torrid and humid climate and, above all, the impenetrable rain forest helped the Maya’s quest for isolation and faithfulness to God and tradition.
A unique Earth Day
Locals still treasure these traits. I had only been in Petén a month in 2007 when I was personally drawn into them. We were going to celebrate Earth Day by having our parish agriculture committee hold a series of demonstrations and lectures, accompanied by prayers. The venue was typically Maya and was not the average parish hall.
The Comboni pastoral team of San Luis, a Maya holy man, local catechists and about 50 other men, women and children, entire families in fact, met at an outstation in early morning. We took the path behind the two-room school building and plunged into the jungle behind it. We walked for two hours through ever thicker vegetation and got lost twice. We finally reached a clearing at the foot of a steep incline, where we found a centuries-old well. Nearby stood an even older ceiba, the Maya sacred tree that holds the universe together by joining the netherworld and the heavens with its pillar-like trunk. Later on, we would share a typically Maya community meal by its massive roots.
Soon the men started cutting openings in vegetation as thick as a wall, to allow us to climb the inclineand in about a half hour we reached a small flat area, our goal. We were standing on sacred grounds. We were standing atop a pyramid built many centuries ago and totally covered by the thick mantle of the rain forest. That’s where I celebrated Earth Day in 2007. No, I will not tell you where it is… our parishioners prefer it that way. It’s the Petén way – our little Amazon.
Common hopes and woes
It took the Spanish armies 150 years to conquer Petén. By then, the mid 1,600s, Dominican Friars had gained the trust of the Maya, revealed the Gospel to them and had encouraged the indigenous people to write down, rather than erase, their own mythology, to treasure it and to build on it – the Popol Vuh.
What the Amazon basin people have been facing up to now is exactly what the Maya of Petén faced then. The Maya took their new faith in Jesus, and their traditions into the rain forests of Petén. Centuries later, their faith and their culture resurfaced into the middle of the 20th century to face new challenges, new dangers but also to offer new ways of keeping both, faith and culture, alive. Can we learn anything from Petén’s survivors?
How did the Maya of Petén keep the faith for decades without having a priest among them? Faith in the Gospel of Jesus was embedded in the traditions of the Popol Vuh: a great respect for Mother Earth, for life, for the forest, for the lives of the ancestors, as signs of God’s goodness.
The Synod on the Amazon is proposing a liturgical rite that will be Catholic without necessarily being Roman. Is that something new? Not really. I grew up in a non-Roman rite in Italy and eagerly adapted to Maya customs at age 70 in Petén. I delighted in sharing the gift of the Eucharist with our Maya parishioners because, after years of deprivation, they hungered for it and rejoiced in it in their own way: pillars of pom (local incense) rising to the sky, colored candles dotting the floor, a chicken meal brought to the altar at the offertory, a shared cup of chocolate from ground cacao beans before the final blessing on solemn Masses, blessing the grounds where the new church would rise by burying holy gifts, praying to the four corners of the earth, praying in caves such as La Cueva de los Padres to ask God for the gift of abundant water, the sound of the marimba through it all.
Our communities in the forest begged for the privilege to preserve the Eucharist in their chapels and share the Lord at Sunday prayers. Allowances had to be made. In that torrid and humid climate, oil lamps do better than bee wax. In a “sacred vessel” the hosts would spoil within a week, but colorful plastic containers do the job. What counts in Petén is the hunger for Jesus. And we fed it. Personally, I felt enveloped by it all: fully Catholic and fully “smelling like the sheep.”
Who kept faith alive when priests were not there? Lay people like the Elder Flavio, whom people El Pastor and revered as such. Thanks to a far away, wise and pastoral bishop, years ago Flavio was allowed to catechize communities: he baptized their children, prayed at their weddings, solemnized their passing. When a priest came back in the 1960s, Flavio walked him for months through the hills and the forest until he got to know his flock. This is what Pope Francis wants the Church to be: “A Church going out…,” with people of equal dignity serving in ministries.
Celebrating the installment of the new bishop in Flores, Petén a few years back, Card. Rodolfo Quezada Toruño of Guatemala City remarked: “Poor Petén, for so long abandoned by the government and by the Church!” The Church, very local and very much part of the culture, is now a reality in Petén.
May the resilience that helped the Maya of Petén survive the Spanish invasion and the way they chose to cling to the coupling of their culture and their faith keep them alive today. May they lead all those people of good will who want to save the Amazon. Petén did it, and so can you.