Maryknoll Father Edward Custer stops in the middle of a steep and picturesque cobblestone street on Flores Island in Petén province, Guatemala, and observes with joy that the platform carrying the images of Mary and Joseph in search of refuge has arrived at the dwelling where it will spend the night. In the heat and half-light of this December night, the leaves of the banana trees that adorn the homes of this tropical village appear wrapped in a smoky, ethereal veil, thanks to the fireworks that announce the arrival of Christmas.
“The people of Flores love their popular religiosity,” says the 64-year-old missioner who has been accompanying a group of children, blowing whistles and playing maracas, and their families, followed by musicians, who play Guatemalan music on marimbas and usher in the traditional Posadas. Inside the homes where the images rest, children delight in papaya candy and homemade drinks, while the adults pray and sing Christmas carols.
“There is a real pastoral need here because the parish has been without a priest for more than a year and the diocese without a bishop for more than two years,” says Custer, who came to Petén in May 2008 after nearly 30 years of missionary service in Nicaragua.
“The first thing I did when I got to Flores was to attend to the people spiritually, setting up regular Masses and establishing times for confession.”
Because Flores is near to the ancient ruins of Tikal and to neighboring Belize, the people here devote themselves primarily to tourism, explains the priest from South Bend, Ind. There are also six surrounding communities of 2,000 to 5,000 inhabitants each.
Remate is one such community. It is a modest place, where the people also make their living by way of the tourist industry and where one of the two churches Custer serves is located. “There are many guest houses, hotels, restaurants and homes where crafts are sold,” Custer says. “That’s what the tourists see from outside, but the rest of the community is much poorer. Almost everyone has electricity, though, and I don’t have to travel on bad roads.”
With the joyful procession of the Posadas, Custer brings to a close a day of hard work in his new parish. In the morning, he participated in the diocesan conference of Petén for Justice and Peace, and in the afternoon he celebrated a funeral Mass for one of the families of his parish that had lost a loved one. The next day he will begin a traditional novena in honor of St. John, celebrate the First Communion of a group of children, and on Sunday he will celebrate four Masses.
The diocesan meeting dealt with social topics of interest not only to Petén but also to this small Central American country: human rights, land titles, domestic violence, among others. Though more than 2,000 miles separate Flores from the U.S. border with Mexico, a youth group from the Flores Vicariate put on a Christmas play that dealt with the drama of a family whose father had to emigrate to the United States. The youth used the play to advocate for just immigration reform in the United States.
In addition to supporting a social ministry, Custer is concerned about the spiritual formation of his parishioners in Flores. He began Catholic Action groups, each with its own leadership in the villages he visits; established evangelization groups called Delegates of the Word; and he organized catechesis for the children, for confirmation and the other sacraments.
“We’re trying to encourage greater participation, but it has been difficult; we haven’t had an evangelization retreat yet, which is key,” says Custer. “More Delegates of the Word are needed to help out in those places where there is no priest.”
When he served in Nicaragua, Custer, in addition to offering parish services to rural villages he could reach only on horseback, began literacy programs and encouraged youth involvement through sports. In order to attract the children to parish life, he organized baseball teams and leagues, and his first team eventually won a national championship. His support for sports was so well known in Nicaragua that a baseball field in the department of Matagalpa carries the name Father Eduardo Custer Stadium.
Custer served in Nicaragua from 1973 until 1979. He left the country when the Sandinista revolution was about to overthrow the dictator Anastasio Somoza. From Nicaragua he went to Guatemala, a country also embroiled in civil war for some 36 years.
Custer was among the religious who ran into danger at that time. After only two years, he had to abandon Guatemala in 1981 when he was threatened with death. He returned to his mission in Nicaragua and remained there until he began this new mission in Guatemala.
The violence he sees today in Guatemala worries the veteran missioner. “It’s as if Christianity never touched the soul of the people, but it could be, rather, part of the aftermath of the huge war that was waged here. Now it seems that extortion is an everyday occurrence; there are kidnappings, bus drivers are murdered every day, one, two or three; there is a good deal of gang activity,” says Custer.
“I lived in wartime when I was in Nicaragua,” he adds, “but I never felt the anxiety I feel here in Guatemala.”
Although he has been in his new mission just a bit more than a year, the priest says, “I’m 64 years old, so I told the people of Remate that if the work continues to go well and the need remains, I will continue with them a little while longer.”
Meanwhile, the children of Flores hope the smiling priest will accompany them again this December as they search for posada, for lodging, for the child about to be born.
David R. Arquije writes for Maryknoll magazine.