PERU is one of the countries that have been hit hardest by the Coronavirus pandemic. Despite the government moving quickly to impose curfews and strict border controls, at the time of writing, there has been more than 600,000 cases and in excess of 28,000 deaths.
“The poorest people are suffering,” Fr Pat Hennessy said. “There are people in Peru who can’t get access to oxygen because it’s too expensive—it’s out of their reach. The price of everything related to Covid-19 has gone through the roof. The pandemic is really hurting them.
It should come as no surprise to anyone who has had the pleasure of sitting down and chatting with a priest or religious sister who has spent time on mission that they still have a great love and concern for the people they served and the country to which they were sent.
However, while Peru—especially its more rural parts—and its people still hold a very special place in the heart of Fr Pat (above), it was the countryside of the Emerald Isle where he discerned his vocation thanks, in no small part to the influences that surrounded him at the time. Born in Limerick in 1945, Fr Pat became extremely close to the grandfather he was named after and this relationship was to prove pivotal in his faith journey.
“He was a farmer,” Fr Pat said. “We were great pals, really big mates. We were an old fashioned family, we used to have a horse and buggy and we’d trot up to Mass with me holding the reins and him laughing and joking away, but when you went into Church he’d change completely. I thought to myself his faith makes a real difference to his life.”
Inspired by his grandfather’s example, imbued with an acute sense of right and wrong—or fair play to use his own words—and having a classmate of his decide to become a priest, Fr Pat began to consider the priesthood for himself.
“God calls you, no matter whether you’re a layperson or religious,” he said. “The brothers at the school I was at were keen to point that out. They’d tell us that God was calling each one of us to do different things. Three of us became priests, one of whom is in Nairobi, Kenya, and we maintain contact to this day and are good friends. I still love it and I’m really pleased that I decided to become a priest.”
Ordained and sent
Fr Pat was ordained in 1969. Despite having a desire to leave his homeland and go out on mission it was Lanarkshire—not the mountains around Lima—that was his first home away from home. After some sage advice from his granny, he quickly set about immersing himself in the life of his Scottish parish—and current residence—St Columbkille’s in Rutherglen.
“My granny said when I was ordained ‘so you’re a priest now, I suppose you think you’re a great fella? When you begin to believe that you’ll be in trouble!’ Good advice! When I came here I got very attached to the people. In those days you were never in the house, you were always out and about and you knew everybody.”
After spending five years in St Columbkille’s, Fr Pat moved on to St James, Coatbridge, with teaching posts at Langbank and Blairs Colleges and a few years spent in Our Lady’s and St Anne’s in Hamilton for good measure. However, his desire to serve God’s people further afield was always in his thinking. He had raised the matter with the late Bishop Francis Thomson first before eventually being granted the opportunity by the late Bishop Joseph Devine.
“I had read a bit about Pope John XXIII and how he’d said that he’d like to send priests to Latin America, as they didn’t have many priests there—70 per cent of the world’s Catholics lived there and were served by 11 per cent of the world’s priests. I had said to the Bishop [Devine] would there be the possibility of me going there and he said ‘yes.’ However, he asked if I would go to Our Lady and St Anne’s first. After a couple of years I asked him again and he told me to contact the St James Society in Boston. So I had an interview over there and they said ‘yes you’d fit in quickly and have some use down there.’ So on Christmas Day, 1988, I left the parish and said I’d be away for a while. Two weeks later I was in Ecuador.”
Despite thinking he was going to become a priest in the Altiplano near Lake Titicaca, his countryside background in Ireland saw him posted to a mountain parish north of Lima, where he was to spend his 10 and a half years in Peru and where he was made Episcopal Vicar of the Countryside by his bishop! As he reflected on those early days on mission, Fr Pat spoke of the qualities that a missionary had to possess to ensure that their ministry was a success.
“A missionary has to place great importance on prayer and to be happy—and the two are connected,” he said. “One of the older sisters said to me ‘Paddy if you didn’t pray before you came here, when you go up into the mountains you will because you won’t be able to tell anyone else how you feel but God will know and you’ll know that He knows. If that happens to you then you’ll just become a happy person.’
“It’s important to note too that a missionary isn’t necessarily there to bring God to the people. God is already there. You have to discover that they already experience God and help bring that out. You need to spend a great deal of time with them, show solidarity with them and enjoy it all too.
“I think everyone is a missionary. You’re a missionary of what is going on in your heart. You live from the inside out—I’ve always liked that expression. If you’re a friend of God, you’ll see things through His eyes. I would tell people that God loves them and when they get that into their heads and hearts they’ll take care of one another.”
Yet despite his optimistic outlook on mission, he is honest enough to admit that there were times he felt scared. Shortly after his arrival in the country, the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) paramilitary group—whose aim was to overthrow the government—killed two Polish Franciscan priests and one Italian missionary priest. Michał Tomaszek and Zbigniew Adam Strzałkowski were murdered on August 9, 1991 and Alessandro Dordi was killed shortly after on August 25 of the same year. Pope Francis gave approval on February 3, 2015 for their Beatification after affirming their martyrdom and Cardinal Angelo Amato celebrated their Beatification in Peru on December 5, 2015. They are known as the Blessed Martyrs of Chimbote and a picture of the trio (above) sits on the mantelpiece in Fr Pat’s living room to serve as a reminder of the sacrifice made by his fellow missionaries while serving the faithful in Peru.
“I was sacred all right and fear can paralyse you,” he said. “We were always told that if things became traumatic for us, we’d have to come home, but I think you have to try and conquer fear.
“One of the things the government used to do to frighten people was to come into a town, block off the streets and take maybe 10 young fellas out into the country and shoot them. One of my fellow priests said to me one day, ‘Paddy you have this jeep don’t you?’ I said ‘yeah.’ He said ‘look 10 of my young people have been taken away by the army. I think I know where they’re buried, will you come with me to trawl the desert?’ I said ‘yeah ok, but you do know that if we discover them, we’ll be put in beside them!’ So we drove around and couldn’t find them. Then a couple of years later he called me and said ‘I know where they are.’ Their garments had appeared above the sand and we discovered that they were there, beside the road. So that was kind of scary stuff, but you couldn’t not do things.
“Sendero Luminoso had said they that they would kill more foreign priests and I was practically living next door to them. People used to say to me ‘you know you could get bumped off?’ One lady asked me ‘Paddy, those bad people are around, why didn’t they kill you?’ I said, ‘Señora, I think I was too tall! And she said ‘did you hear that? The Padre says he’s too tall!’ And the people began to laugh. I remember reading somewhere recently that it’s good to have a healthy disregard of yourself, without making a fool of yourself. I got a great kick out of it.
“Never mind that though, some of the roads were deadly and fierce too. Several times I was nearly killed. I was nearly killed one night when I was on a horse. I was walking along this path one night and it was dark—the sun falls out of the sky in Peru within five or ten minutes and it becomes pitch dark. So we’re walking along this path and there’s a river below and the next thing the horse stops in its tracks. What had happened was that the path has just been wiped away and had the horse went another three or four steps it would have gone down into the river and I’d have gone with him. So I got off and the next thing I see is that the road’s gone. Eventually the people came to me and said ‘we were waiting for you.’ And I said ‘yeah but look what happened!’”
The power of people
In spite of some of these somewhat extreme hazards of missionary priesthood, Fr Pat, drew inspiration from Pope John XIII and Hélder Câmara—with the latter, at one point, known as the bishop who was in charge of the poorest diocese in the world. The Peruvian people themselves were also crucial in helping to fortify himself while on mission.
“The organisation I was with only dealt with the poorest parishes or places that couldn’t sustain a priest, or pay him anything or feed him,” he said. “I was up in the mountains with the poorest of people and some of them in the villages hadn’t seen a priest since the 1950s. When I was there, the niño phenomenon blew away all the bridges and all the roads and people had absolutely nothing. I just felt that that was a great place to be. I just said to myself hey this is great. I used to set out my little bag and all I’d have was the good book, the implements to celebrate Mass and that was it. I was totally dependent on the people.”
After witnessing first-hand, how a missionary priest or sister needed to be aware of the cultural sensibilities of the people they were serving—a riot nearly ensued for one priest who told the people not to spend money on a new dress for Our Lady before the bishop arrived to calm things down—Fr Pat wondered why one of his churches was often empty, but was able to remedy this by conversing with the people and ‘seeing the world through different eyes,’ as he puts it.
“I discovered in the villages that you have to find the person who is the head of the community— usually it’s a woman, the Mamacha,” he said. “One day I was talking to one of the fishermen and I said ‘why is it that so few people come to Mass? He said to me ‘Padre, you don’t know that there’s a Señora who’s the grandmother or great grandmother of half the fishermen in this village and you haven’t gone to see her to ask for her blessing.’ So I went in to see her and after I’d done that and been given her blessing I went away home on holiday and when I came back the church was filled!”
After his initial struggles with language, he settled in and became beloved by the people. They built him his parish houses in the mountains and invited him to their own houses (like the girl pictured above), showing that he had gained their trust and respect, which was epitomised during an encounter with a government official.
“I was sitting in the chapel and the next thing this fella arrives—all dressed up—and I look at him and I look behind him and he had five bodyguards. He was the Minister of the Interior. I said ‘Dr Álvaro.’ ‘Si’ he said. I said ‘it’s lovely that you’ve come to see your people.’ He said to me ‘see all those statues and that I don’t believe any of it.’ I said ‘that’s alright, you’re a very powerful man and if you were twice as powerful again you couldn’t believe it because believing is a gift.’ So he went away and three or four days later I met him on top of the mountain and he says to me ‘Padre I’ve been praying for the gift.’ I said ‘that’s great, but look at the way your poor people are living, that’s not right, all their canals are broken and they can’t grow sufficient food to keep them alive for the rest of the year.’ Shortly after that encounter he gave us $200,000 but he said ‘would you be around? I don’t want that money going to build public monuments.’ I promised I’d make sure of that. So every cent of it went to repair the canals.”
The importance of presence
It cannot be overstated just how important the presence of a priest is in the missionary country or territory in which he serves, so when Fr Pat was informed that one of the two projects supported by Missio Scotland in Peru would involve the construction of a parish house in San Sebastian de Llusco in the Sicuani Prelature, he was delighted and also explained his connection with Bishop Pedro Bustamante (above), the man charged with overseeing both projects.
“Two years ago they were giving medals to these missionaries in Cork and when I went here was this bishop, Pedro Bustamante,” Fr Pat recalled. “He said ‘Patricio’ and I said ‘yes?’ He said ‘you visited our village when I was 14 years of age and you stayed for a couple of days and I’ve never forgotten you! ‘God,’ I said ‘that’s amazing!’’
“A parish house is important because of presence,” he said. “The reason why people built a house for me was because then they knew that I would stay with them. The fact that the priest has a residence will allow him to live among the people and that makes them feel so good it would break your heart. People might ask why you would build a house, but it’s a really good thing, it won’t just be a house for the priest, it will become bigger and it will probably have facilities like a hall and a pharmacy and so on and being able to share life with the people is a great thing.”
Fr Pat was similarly enthusiastic about Missio Scotland’s second project—a feeding programme for disabled children (above), also in the Sicuani Prelature—and spoke of the need for those of us who are part of the universal Church to continue to support the world’s poorest peoples, especially at this time.
“Comedores are a big thing in Peru,” he said “They’re big kitchens and what the priest usually does is buy flour, cooking oil, soya and a stove and basic instruments and you’d hand it to the people and say look this is a kitchen and you can now set up a comedor and people will eat much better. That makes community and people’s conditions improve too.”
“With the Covid-19 and the whole situation, unfortunately you have people saying we have to look after ourselves now, cut aid to everything. Governments have also spoken about cutting aid and that we can’t get too involved now, we have to recover first, but we give out of need,” he said. “If you go back in history, this church was built in the hungry 30s when people had nothing but they gave to God. As long as you do it to the least of my brothers you do it to me. So would you forget the Lord in his poverty?
“God loves everyone, but He loves poor people and children especially. That’s the Gospel. If you begin to think small then you’ll start to forget about the poor, the disabled and those in need. So you have to have a big heart—to be a missionary you have to have a big heart. That’s maybe the message that Missio Scotland is trying to convey, that we really can’t forget about the poor people on the planet.
“And we might ask, what is the Church? Well the Church is the heart of God and the Church is meant to portray God to the world—a God who loves everyone. The Church is just one big family and what happens in a good family? Everyone is loved, but if anyone is struggling or sick, then the mother and father have a special love for them until they get up and walk with the rest. So we have to help people to get up and walk with the rest of us and participate, I think that’s it. You might also ask why am I giving £20 to Missio Scotland? The answer is because you’re giving it to God and good people will use it in God’s name to help people. That’s what God wants. That’s what His Church wants.”