Doing Church in Cuilapa, Guatemala

Cuilapa is a town for the ears. A town of dogs barking, roosters crowing, horns blasting, fireworks bursting, loudspeakers blasting, and upbeat music pumping. It’s also a town of bells—great brass bells that ring loud and long and joyous as street vendors close their food stands and evening draws near. The cacophonous alarm, sounded by a bell ringer in a tower—beckons worshipers to evening Mass at the Catholic cathedral.

Across the street, a world map etched in concrete marks the geographical middle of Central America. The understated monument blends into the climb and tumble of bustling, narrow streets walled-in by row upon row of flat stucco storefronts with barred windows and gated doors. But amid the hum and howl of concentrated humanity, one site stands out: the Cathedral. A throwback to an age when the tallest building in town was always the local church, this comparatively imposing structure holds the chair of Bishop Sagastumi, shepherd of a diocese that, until 20 years ago, did not exist — the diocese of Santa Rosa de Lima.

At the cathedral door, stillness smacks you in the face. The ancient meets the new. A plainclothes choir sings to the rhythms of a youthful guitarist under the sleepless eyes of the saints, while children in robes fulfill liturgical duties originating in an age before the parish, the town, the country or even “hispanic” culture existed. This is Guatemalan religion, but it’s also Roman religion.

In the stillness, an old woman coughs; a baby cries; feet and knees shuffle to the praying position. The wooden benches show wear and tear from 50 years of bowed heads and folded hands, dating back to when this church was still an appendage of the Diocese of Guatemala City. Air conditioning is not an option, but electric fans dry the sweat from bended necks. Bishop Sagastumi, a skilled cantor, fills the cavernous space with his smooth melodic voice. Then from a pulpit cloaked in a Year of Mercy banner, he shares the evening homily. He condemns government corruption and a coal mining operation that’s been threatening people’s homes. The homily reinforces the already well-established point that this man is a bishop for the humble, for the people on the peripheries, for the farmers facing failed crops and the mothers who can’t feed their children. In other words, a clergyman for all people, even the ones you won’t see joining in the evening festivities of downtown Cuilapa.

You don’t have to go far to find those peripheries. A short drive leads to rural villages where people live in makeshift shacks, cook on open fires, fetch water from trickling springs, wash clothes in shallow creeks, work in fields under the blazing sun, and shiver in wet beds on mud floors, helpless as the rains blow through the bare wood planks that are more like fences than walls. These mostly indigenous families live a shockingly disconnected existence, not only from the affluence of Guatemala’s modern capital city, but even from the rustic prosperity of Cuilapa.

But God is there, on the parched and barren outskirts. And so is his Church. You can find her gathered in a dirt-floor shack for Bible study and fellowship, or under a tarp to receive the Sacrament, or on a road praying for water. And you can find her wherever the least of these are crying out for help.

Cross Catholic Outreach is excited to be working alongside Bishop Sagastumi and the Diocese of Santa Rosa de Lima to serve Christ’s poor in these mountain villages. The diocese’s feeding program, scholarships and other charitable efforts are making a huge impact!