PILGRIMAGE: Santa Cruz, Bolivia—Feeling Christ Suffer by Albert Holtz

A Benedictine Journey Through Lent

Santa Cruz, Bolivia—Feeling Christ Suffer by Albert Holtz

From: Pilgrim Road

She is barefoot, wearing the common dress of Bolivian Indian women, with underskirts that puff out to make her look unnaturally heavy in the hips.  Her jet black braids disappear over her shoulders and down her back.  The young mother is just greeting us when her husband comes trotting up from somewhere across the dusty lot to join the group.  Their house, really just a shed, is one of several strewn about among the low tropical shrubs and scrawny trees.  It’s a slab of concrete with wooden walls and a corrugated metal roof.  The couple lead Father Jim, Sister Ana, and me solemnly into their tiny home.

The single room has windows only in the front wall next to the door, so that even on this mild autumn day in May, it’s hot inside.  Two twin beds shoved together take up half of the entire place.  The family’s belongings fit onto a few shelves next to the wheelbarrow that’s leaning against a wall.  There’s no plumbing to be seen.  No stove.  Their three-year-old daughter, whom I’ve been carrying, squirms out of my arms and runs off past her parents and out the door.  Her dirty white dress is the same one she had on at the 7 o’clock Mass last night when I was concelebrating with Father Joe, an English diocesan priest newly arrived in Bolivia.

It was time for the “Sign of Peace,” and the two of us walked out into the wide airy nave to exchange a handshake and a greeting with the seventy-five or so people.  It was also a chance to bless the little babies and make a fuss over the toddlers.  Toward the rear of the church stood a dark-skinned Indian couple, their dress and their faces gave them away as simple country people, campesinos.  I’d noticed them filing in late, the mother sober and preoccupied, the little girl in the white dress, and the father carrying the baby wrapped in a white blanket.  When I came up to him he carefully switched his precious bundle to his other arm and shook my hand.  To see the infant, I slowly lifted back a corner of the baby blanket, noticing the pattern of flowers – little pink and blue ones.  A shiny dark eye sparkled up at me.  I gently touched the baby’s cheek with the knuckle of my first finger.  Then as I lifted my hand in a blessing, an old woman’s voice rasped in a loud stage whisper, “Está muerte, padre.  Tiene que baptisarlo.”  My hand stopped in mid-blessing, as the words hit home, “He’s dead, Father.  You have to baptize him.”  I stared down at the tiny face again and realized to my horror that the glistening eye was in fact not moving or blinking.  It was frozen there like a bead of black glass.  I felt as if the Earth had just gaped open under my feet.  In a daze, I mechanically replaced the corner of the blanket over the dead baby’s face and told the parents to wait until after Mass.  I returned to the altar in a stunned trance.

To the left of the twin beds, on a table, lies a small white casket, closed tight.  A couple of neighbors have now squeezed into the small room to pray with the heartbroken parents whose faces are haggard with grief and shock.  Father Jim, Sister Ana, and I have come to celebrate the “funeral,” a simple prayer service at home before the body is taken to the cemetery.

The priest sprinkles holy water and says an opening prayer in the stuffy room.  As Sister begins a scripture reading, I watch the mother standing near me.  The sharp, almost craggy features of her young face are contorted in pain.  That’s the way she looked last night when they brought the dead baby straight from the hospital to Mass to ask us to baptize him.

In the back pews of church after the Mass, a group of curious onlookers joined the family and friends in the impromptu prayers for the baby.  Father Joe explained that the child didn’t need to be baptized, that he was already with God, but that we could pray together and give him a blessing.

“¿Como se llama?” he asked gently.  “What is the baby’s name?”

“Se llama Juan Domingo,” the mother whispered.  “His name is Juan Domingo.”  Then she began to pour out her tragic story to the sympathetic ear of Father Joe.

Just this morning, a newspaper article had given some grim statistics about the quality of life here in the Bolivian state of Santa Cruz.  As Juan Domingo’s mother told her tragic story in a soft, half-choking voice, the newspaper’s cold statements and abstract numbers seemed to answer her like the mocking chorus of a Greek tragedy.

“My baby had terrible diarrhea.”  “The most common cause of death in children in Latin America is dehydration due to simple diarrhea.”

“We had no doctor to go to, but finally we brought him in to the hospital in town.”  “Thirty-four percent have no health services available to them.”

“The first thing the doctor said to me when he looked at my son was, ‘This baby is dirty!’”  “Forty-five percent have no running water, but rely on wells, pumps, and tanks.”

“When I told him that my son had very bad diarrhea, the doctor scolded me.  He shouted, ‘Why do you feed your children water that has not been boiled first?”  “Forty-seven percent lack access to basic sanitation.”

“He died in the hospital soon after we brought him there.  My little son!  My little son!”  Now the response had an American accent: “Well, in third world countries life is cheap; babies there are always dying, so people are used to it.”  Someone, I thought to myself, ought to come and tell this mother that she’s supposed to be used to it.  She looks as heartbroken as any grieving mother I’ve ever seen in the United States.

It’s very still in here.  You can hear the flies buzzing during the reading and the short homily.  There’s a litany, some final prayers for the devastated parents, then a parting blessing for baby Juan Domingo in his little white casket.

We step outside into the cool fresh air, and the parents thank us for coming; to have two priests and a sister at Juan Domingo’s funeral was a great honor.

The three of us whisper sympathetic good-byes and leave the family and the silent neighbors to their tears.  We climb into our rugged vehicle for the bone-jarring ride back along the dirt track.

Soon my weeks in Bolivia will be over and I’ll be back in my monastery in the United States.  The reality of the “third world” will probably fade into a vague memory, a series of interesting color snapshots in an album.  I’ll still feel as helpless as ever in the face of so much poverty and suffering in the world.  Especially when I start teaching school again.

“Forty-eight percent of the population will never have a chance to go to school.”  Last night’s Greek chorus of statistics interrupts my musings once again.  Suddenly I realize that something has happened to me in the past twenty-four hours, something that has changed me forever.  Now the statistics speak with a human voice – the haunting whisper of a heartbroken mother with black braids.  Now the numbers have a face – a little brown one with a single black glassy eye staring up at me.  Today, third world statistics have been given a name – Juan Domingo.

I am richer and more sensitive for having met him.  Now Juan Domingo sleeps forever in my heart, cradled in his father’s arms and wrapped in a white baby blanket with flowers on it – little pink and blue ones.


One important dimension of the gospel’s call to conversion is “social justice.”  Lent’s discipline of fasting and almsgiving should make us more conscious of our egoism as individuals and as a nation.

As you read the parable of the rich man and Lazarus below, notice that the poor man has a name, Lazarus.  No character in any other parable has a name.  Think about what Jesus might be trying to tell us by giving the beggar a name.  Ask yourself if needy people are very “real” for you.  Do you let yourself be touched by the plight of those who you see every day?  Or do you treat them the way the rich man treated Lazarus, perhaps not even noticing their existence?  What is your attitude toward the millions of poor and starving people around the world?  What do you think Jesus expects of you?


Sacred Scripture (Luke 16:19-23)

There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.  And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.  The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom.  The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom.


Rule of Benedict (Chapter 4, “The Tools for Good Works,” vv. 14-19)

You must relieve the lot of the poor, clothe the naked, visit the sick and bury the dead.

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