January 11, 2018
BY TONI CASHNELLI
Francisco Ó Conaire, OFM“I just love a challenge,” says Fr. Francisco Ó Conaire, former SJB General Visitor and one of four friars who volunteered to form a new community in Cuba.
PHOTOS BY JIM McINTOSH, OFM“We’re going to be challenged about what is essential and what is important materially.”
He and his brothers will join women and men from other Orders – Jesuits, Claretians, Oblates and Conventual Franciscans – already serving in Cuba. “I know in one way we’re not going to be able to do an awful lot” in terms of ministry, he says. “In a Communist country the state assumes responsibility for all social work, education, and health. The focus will be living in solidarity with the people – not so much what I can contribute but what I can learn.”
Havana’s St. Christopher Cathedral dates from 1787.
It’s also exciting, he says, “to be going into an environment where we’re going to be challenged about what is essential and what is important materially, trying to live according to some of the basic ideals of the Franciscan life. It will be a major challenge for all of us going in there to learn to do without things we have become so used to having. We won’t have cars; I don’t know about bicycles. We’re so used to computers, having access to the Internet; it’s going to be a big challenge going into an environment and trying to live a much more simple life.”
They plan to “move slowly, listen, look, converse, and when the time is right and we feel we have a bit more of an understanding of the needs of the Church and the people, we’re suggesting that we propose how to strengthen the Franciscan presence and how to support the Church in Cuba.”
At this point, “I don’t know what the future holds. I’m going with an open mind.”
BY FR. FRANCISCO Ó CONAIRE, OFM
Francisco with sisters Carmel and ColetteI returned to Ireland at the end of 2014, after six years in Rome and, as you know, spent several months doing visitation to your province. My mother was elderly and required more support. My sisters and I decided to continue to try to help her stay in her own home for as long as possible. She died in January 2017. I am very grateful to the Franciscan Province in Ireland for making it possible for me to attend to my mother, as well as support the pastoral work of the Irish Province, the Order and JPIC outreach to other congregations. After an elective Provincial Chapter in June I was given some time to discern whether to stay in Ireland or return on Mission.
I have always tried to follow where God’s Spirit is leading me. A few months ago, with the help of my spiritual director and the support of the leadership of the Order, I felt called to respond to an appeal by our Minister General to go to Cuba.
The Franciscans returned to Cuba in 1887. By the time Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, there were about 100 friars there, most of them from the Basque country in the northern part of the Iberian Peninsula. Since then the presence of friars has dwindled and the Franciscan presence is under threat. There are two elderly Basque friars and three Cubans. The Minister General, in light of these challenges and recognizing the importance of keeping a viable presence of the Order there, launched an appeal.
Francisco with Jeff Scheeler and Michael Perry at the 2014 Chapter.To date there are three other friars who are committed to go, from Poland, Brazil and Guatemala. We will travel to Havana by mid-February to participate in a two-month program of formation and orientation. This will include reflections on the history, culture and present-day reality of the Church and state. As you are probably aware, Cuba is a Communist state. We will live in the friary house entrusted to the Order in the Parish of the Holy Cross, at least for the immediate future until we find our feet.
We have to get to know one another, as well as a very new reality for all of us. The stated objective of the mission is to strengthen the Franciscan presence in Cuba by giving it a new impulse, while at the same time collaborating with the Custody of the Caribbean. The Custody also has a small number of friars in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. (As you know, there are three friars from the Province of John the Baptist in Jamaica.) Additionally, there are about 10 friars in Haiti with a considerable number of young Haitians in formation for the Franciscan life.
In the last few days we received an e-mail from the Office for Mission and Evangelization in Rome, preparing us for what to expect initially. We are waiting for our visas. We expect, but are not holding our breaths, to have them in early February. Many material things we take for granted in a more capitalist system are either not available or too expensive for most ordinary people. We are advised to bring some of more essential things with us. Apparently “scarcity” is the name of the game in relation to food, clothes, electrical appliances, etc.
Last year friars from Holy Name and St. Barbara provinces made a mission trip to Cuba.We are advised to bring a smartphone and download the Divine Office, rather than depend on books. It is impossible to have Internet in our house. There are some Wi-Fi hotspots in Havana, permitted by the regime. In order to connect one has to buy a phone card costing a little more than a dollar for an hour’s connection. However, while we wait for residency, which could take several months, we cannot apply for a Cuban phone number. In the meantime we’ll have lots of time to get to know one another and develop our contemplative dimension! Once we are registered we can use our phones at rates given to citizens, as well as have access to the State medical care.
The population of Cuba is about 11.5 million. Incredibly, the average Cuban earns about $30-$60 (in U.S. dollars) a month. For this reason we must learn to adapt to the lifestyle of the people, conscious of the challenges they are facing. Apparently the public transport system in Havana is very inadequate, with long waiting times. We are advised to bring comfortable walking shoes, at least to keep in touch with the other fraternity which is about 20 minutes away.
Please keep us in your prayers. I hope to give updates from time to time. When we get settled, you are welcome to come visit us.
See for yourself
Want to learn more about Cuba? The Franciscan Missionary Union of Holy Name Province is sponsoring two mission trips for friars this year. The first is Saturday, April 14-Saturday, April 21; the second is Saturday, Nov. 3-Saturday, Nov. 10. During the program, “Walk in My Shoes: Cuba 2018”, friars can interact with OFMs and their parishioners, experience Cuban culture, music, food and art, and explore Havana and environs. The cost of $2,300 is all-inclusive. A flyer with more information is attached to this newsletter e-mail.
Tim with parishioners at an out-station of the parish(First accounts were sketchy, scary and inaccurate. In December, friars at Holy Trinity Parish in South Sudan – not in Nairobi as originally reported – were attacked and robbed. Following is a narrative of the harrowing events from missionary Tim Lamb.)
BY BR. TIM LAMB, OFM
It was noon on Dec. 21 at Queen of Angels Friary in Juba, South Sudan. I was lying on my bed, resting in the cool of my room, waiting for lunch. The temperature was around 100 degrees.
Two men entered my room, one with a large stick. They demanded money and I said I had none, which was not altogether truthful since I had 7,000 Kenya Shillings (70 U.S. dollars) in my wallet. One of the men grabbed my cell phone off the stool next to the bed. They then hauled me up and led me through the refectory and kitchen and into the front meeting room. I was told to lie down.
Missionary Tim Lamb in a photo from 2017I lay on the floor with perhaps eight other people. I was not aware of who was around me except I knew that the dog, Pongo, was under the table in front of me, growling and barking. I prayed he would stop so that the robbers would not injure him. Fairly soon, he quieted. With my head down and my nose to the floor, I smelled something terrible. I am not sure what it was or where it came from. I can only name it the smell of fear.
One of the robbers took off my shoes; I am not sure why. We waited for the next order. I heard a vehicle pull up outside the compound and then the gate being opened. My fear increased, as the possibilities were endless. I wondered if that was not the Bursar of the Friary, Br. Leonardo, returning from shopping. Then I heard someone say, “There are robbers, stop them!” At that point everyone rose from the floor.
Then the sequence of events becomes somewhat clouded. The first thing I remember was putting my shoes on. Then I went to my room to see what was taken. I knew they had my phone but I discovered they found and took my wallet but left my passport (which would have been a hassle to replace). I returned to the meeting room to find one of the young Aspirants (living in the friary in discernment) had one of the robbers on the floor and was struggling to hold on to him until the soldiers arrived.
What I am about to relate I am not proud of. I took off the robber’s shoes. (Maybe because the robbers took my shoes off…?) I remember thinking that among Arabs the greatest insult is to be hit with a shoe. So I began to hit this man about his face with his own shoe. I stopped and got a hold of myself and still in a daze, walked away. There were many people entering the room and many voices yelling. I do remember Father Federico yelling into his phone, probably to the police or someone who would notify the police.
A short time later he handed me his phone. I found myself talking to Michael Perry, the Minister General. Juba is under the direction of the Minister General, and Federico had called him. He was very concerned, supportive and asked me to help the friars process the event in the coming days. I told him I would, and handed the phone back to Federico. I remember someone saying to me that he would be surprised if the robber survived the night in the custody of the police.
At this point I saw a friar enter the meeting room who was bleeding badly from the head. He had been stabbed by one of the robbers outside the friary. The floor was covered in blood. There was a call for rope to tie up the robber since the Aspirant was tiring of holding him. I thought to myself that since my habit cord was getting old and frayed, maybe it could be of use. I decided that since this robber may lose his life as a result of his actions, he may benefit from being tied up with something that was blessed. So I went to get it, and the robber was detained on the floor with my cord.
Everyone took a deep breath and realized the horror of what had just happened. There were a lot of tears and sobs. The police and army arrived; they searched the friary and left with the robber still tied with my cord. Strangely enough, they transported him in our vehicle with the injured friars who were on the way to the hospital. By this time there were around a hundred angry parishioners and neighbors yelling loudly and hitting the vehicle. If the robber had escaped he might have been killed by the mob.
After the vehicle left I had to do something, so I began to scrub the bloody floor of the meeting room. I thought to myself how dried blood looks like dirt when mixed with water. I know that may seem like a gruesome thought, but at the time it was comforting. With that thought I connected with the earth and with God, the creator of all living things. I scrubbed while the Aspirant mopped.
There were friars gathered at the dining room table, and a bottle of whiskey appeared. I only took a little. It helped get my heart beat back to normal. We talked about what had happened and began putting events in order. Each person had experienced not only the event through their personal perspective, but also witnessed things I had not witnessed. Together we put the pieces together.
The friar mentioned above had not only a large, deep gash to the head but also a sliced thumb which he received trying to deflect a stab to his stomach. One friar had the bottoms of his feet sliced up from running after a robber barefooted. The third person injured was a lay man who was working on the computer in the meeting room at the time of the attack. He received a cracked skull and concussion.
As I said, the robbers had taken my wallet; it held my Kenya Resident Alien card, which would not be easy to replace. They also got my Ohio driver’s license and a credit card. I prayed to St. Anthony and spoke to a police officer and asked for a police report, which I would need to replace my Kenya ID. Later that night just before Vespers one of the Aspirants came into the dining room and presented a stack of cards. There were the three cards I was concerned about. I guess a robber had entered the Chapel with my wallet, took out all the cards and kept the wallet and the little money inside. I was thankful to Anthony once again for helping me.
After Vespers, I realized that the more the house schedule could be followed (prayer at the usual time, meals as usual), the sooner the friars could return to normal. The next day after supper the community processed what had happened. There were silent moments, heavy sighs, tension, and there was laughter. It was then I knew that we would all be OK.
In the days that followed many friars and parishioners apologized to me, since they knew I was a visitor. I told them that this could have happened anywhere. It could have happened on my many bus trips from Kenya to Uganda, or in Kenya itself. It could have happened in the U.S. or Jamaica or wherever desperate times make for desperate people.
This week took a turn on Sunday, when I woke up a bit queasy. I wasn’t sure whether it was something to be concerned about, so I went into my normal daily schedule. In just a little while, the tiredness overtook me, and I realized that I had the flu!
Happily, Bill Farris was able to take my Mass at St. Margaret Hall. And the nursing home visits I had planned for the afternoon needed to be canceled. When I woke up after three additional hours of sleep, the full force of the flu took effect (if you know what I mean). I was so grateful that I had not passed it on to the brothers in the nursing home. Al Hirt went to get some medication to take the edge off the symptoms.
Today, simple things like toast and tea taste so good. I will return to my bed soon and take another long winter’s nap. Even with a flu shot, we’re not immune from life’s messiness. Thank God for brothers who help along the way.
— Fr. Mark Soehner, OFM
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