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 Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay, WisconsinMay 21, 2004 Issue 

Stewards serve by evangelizing other people

Papal Volunteer looks back and goes back to old mission


Fifth in a series on Stewardship of Service

By Peter Geniesse
Special to The Compass

photo of Peter Geniesse with young people in Antofagasta, Chile
BACK IN CHILE: Peter Geniesse visits with some of the young people in Antofagasta, Chile, where the Green Bay Diocese sent lay missioners in the 1960s.

Some missioners called us "apostolic tourists."

We were young, adventurous Catholic laymen and laywomen sent to Latin America in the 1960s by our home dioceses to do what we could to enkindle the faith - within a couple of years.

We were called Papal Volunteers, a lay movement which grew out of Pope John XXIII's 10-year plan to bolster the priest-poor regions of the traditionally Catholic hemisphere. In 1960, the pope called for religious orders to send 10% of their numbers as missionaries to Latin America.

The Norbertines started their Peru mission about then and many other Wisconsin congregations, male and female, did likewise. Some U.S. dioceses sponsored their own missions, staffing them with priests, nuns and laity. Many are still in the mission field, including Green Bay.

PAVLA, or Papal Volunteers to Latin America, is long gone and mostly forgotten. It started about the same time as the Peace Corps, and most of us who served now identify ourselves with Pres. Kennedy's creation. Our numbers were in the hundreds, not the tens of thousands.

Genevieve Zandala, a registered nurse from Manitowoc, was the first Papal Volunteer from the Green Bay Diocese. She served at a parish clinic in rural Mexico until the diocese's Antofagasta mission was established. I joined her there in 1963.

Two years later there were five of us. Teacher Jim Schaefer of Green Bay and nurse Carol Reinkover of Chilton arrived together. Teacher Jeannine Ducharme, a Canadian sponsored by the Green Bay Diocese, was the other.

Fr. Ray Zagorski, a young assistant pastor at New Holstein, recruited and trained diocesan Papal Volunteers and solicited support and donations to pay their expenses.

My involvement began in 1962 while working as associate editor of the Green Bay Register, the predecessor of The Compass. Then-editor Fr. Orville Janssen asked me to check out why PAVLA was having trouble recruiting volunteers, unlike the Peace Corps. I wrote the story, convinced myself, if no other, and signed up.

I spent four months at Msgr. Ivan Illich's Center for Intercultural Formation in Cuernavaca, Mexico, studying Spanish and re-thinking a gringo's religious role in a Latin land.

Msgr. Illich, who died in 2002 in Germany, wrote numerous iconoclastic treatises challenging the church and society. He and his think-tank philosophers were influential at the Second Vatican Council, but he later clashed with Rome over missionary perceptions, and he and his school were blacklisted.

One day in the summer of 1963, Fr. Zagorski gave me a mission cross in front of the old Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, and we took off south on a tour of papal missions.

We stayed a few days with American missionaries in Guatemala, Panana, Colombia, Peru and finally Chile, reporting what we observed to Papal Volunteer headquarters in Chicago.

For the next two years, I was somewhat of a free-lance lay missionary. I taught English to sixth graders at Colegio San Jose, then moved to the University of the North where I taught writing and journalism and wrote grant proposals for the fledgling Jesuit institution.

I also worked for the Antofagasta Diocese, handling parish publications, and helped at churches in the slums and missions on the pampa. I even taught English to adults in the evenings.

The other Papal Volunteers the Green Bay Diocese sponsored had mostly steady jobs: two at the Catholic elementary school run by Canadian Oblate priests and two at health clinics in poor parishes.

I left Chile in August 1965 after I had been hospitalized for weeks following a relapse of hepatitis. Last month I returned to Antofagasta for the first time. It had changed. Big time.

Colegio San Jose had built an upscale complex for 1,200 students, kindergarten through high school, but there are no nuns and only a couple of priests. The Oblates sold their old church corner to a supermarket and the parish moved to the suburbs.

La Universidad Catolica del Norte, then mostly a dream with 400 or so poor students, now counts more than 7,000 at two campuses and offers numerous doctorate programs. Parking is now a problem on campus. Several facilities trace their beginnings from the grants I wrote.

Of the numerous missionaries who worked in Antofagasta in the 1960s, only two American nuns and one Canadian priest remain. It's now an archdiocese. The bishop I worked for died decades ago.

The parish health clinic run by the two Papal Volunteer nurses is still in operation. But its focus has changed from treating the poor to AIDS and drug rehabilitation.

There still are slums on the city's perimeters and in its industrial zones. The new poor have added another tier or two to the sandy crescent of the coastal mountain range. But their numbers certainly don't dominate like those of the 1960s.

Antofagasta has changed, and its tide has virtually covered the footprints of those of us who served nearly 40 years ago. We were sent to do what we could in a couple of years. Then we returned home. That's where we were to make a difference.

My faith was strengthened and my social conscience was formed, not so much in my 17 years of Catholic schooling as in those couple of years as a Papal Volunteer.

My most memorable mentors include Msgr. Illich, who taught me to think, and Ignacio Vergara, a Jesuit worker-priest, who gave up wealth and position to be with the poor of Antofagasta. Both are saints in my book.

There was a third person, a man I never met, but whose life inspired me. Padre Alberto Hurtado, a Chilean Jesuit who boldly walked with workers, orphans and the elderly, died of cancer in 1952. I knew the priest, Fr. Renato Poblete, who succeeded him in his mission to the poor, "Hogar de Cristo."

Imagine my thrill when I read the headlines of a Santiago newspaper one day last month. Padre Hurtado had passed the test. His second miracle had been approved. by Rome. He was now a saint. I had figured that out 40 years ago.


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