Mission ministry is presence, support
Father Jimmy Jeanfreau remains amazed at the enthusiasm and affection of the Bolivian people every time he returns, and it’s been six years since his last assignment as a missionary priest there. On his most recent visit June 1-8, Father Jeanfreau as director of the Pontifical Mission Societies’ office led religious educators who are mission coordinators in the Archdiocese of New Orleans on the Bridge Builders Mission Immersion Program in and around his old stomping grounds of Santa Cruz de la Sierra.
“We walked in the path of Father Jeanfreau,” said Kristie Vollentine, Pontifical Mission Societies’ office manager.
Vollentine said it was the first mission trip organized by the office since Hurricane Katrina. Unlike past trips where a service was performed for the native people, the emphasis in Bolivia was to embrace the Catholic faith as it is lived in another part of the world.
“Our focus was to be present to the people,” Vollentine said.
“You immersed yourself in the culture by doing what they do, seeing where they worship,” said Claudia Todaro, director of religious education at St. Francis Xavier, Metairie.
Participants visited orphanages, broke bread over tea and other meals and shared the Catholic faith with Bolivians at Corpus Christi processions in a small church setting and in a large stadium with 30,000 people parading in colorful garb and processing behind a lighted monstrance containing the body of Christ. The monstrance was carried atop a rose-filled truck bed and driven around the stadium to the cathedral in Santa Cruz.
“This is the body of Christ, too,” Todaro said about Bolivian Catholics celebrating Corpus Christi.
Todaro, whose first mission trip was to Belize in 2004, also observed how differently churches and missions in Bolivia depicted Jesus and Mary. She saw Jesus laid in a tomb, and Mary dressed in black.
“They identify with the suffering part of Jesus because they are suffering,” she said. “God is with them and they are going through what he went through. It made you realize that when you suffer, you connect to the suffering Jesus.”
The Pontifical Mission Societies local office started the Bridge Builders Mission Immersion Program in 2004 as a way “to have an experience of what the church in mission is,” Vollentine said.
By strictly concentrating on the faith experience of the Bolivian people, trip goers witnessed true faith in God even amidst what most would consider human hardship.
“Just spending time with them gave them a sense of dignity of who they are,” Father Jeanfreau said. “It’s a connection that affirms them.”
Todaro and others were amazed at the resourcefulness of the people and how content they were in life. Todaro gave an example by showing photographs of sandals they made from old tires.
“They are happy in their own lives. They work in something we think would be hard, but they don’t want to come to America and be somebody else. They are happy with their lives,” said Joanne Caldcleugh, school religion coordinator and middle school religion teacher at St. Matthew the Apostle in River Ridge.
Dominican Sister Suzanne Brauer, who is the mission educator and Holy Childhood Association coordinator for the mission office, invited active archdiocesan mission coordinators on the trip. In addition to Todaro and Caldcleugh, Maureen Thiebaud, director of religious education at St. Andrew the Apostle, and Jewell Bayhi, director of religious education at Mary Queen of Peace in Mandeville, participated. “We’re building relationships, building bridges between our culture and their culture and bringing that back to our students in the archdiocese,” Sister Suzanne said.
All returned with a renewed sense of the universal church and personal experiences to share with students.
Bayhi said she, too, noticed how appreciative the Bolivians were, especially the young catechists. She returned and shared stories about the Bolivian people and the uniqueness of their celebrations with students in the Mary Queen of Peace Vacation Bible School.
“They didn’t want us to build a new building,” she said. “They just wanted to be with us and eat with us.”
Nurturing the missionary spirit of Catholic educators who then can share their first-hand experiences and zeal for the Catholic faith worldwide with students is what the trips are all about.
“We are a universal church,” Caldcleugh said.
Father Jeanfreau said he plans to make the mission experience an annual event.