The images of Mary and Joseph, under the watchful eyes of Father Edward Custer, have arrived at the dwelling to spend the night. The home is on a steep and picturesque cobblestone street on Flores Island in Petén province in Guatemala.
“The people of Flores love their popular religiosity,” said the 66-year-old Maryknoll priest from South Bend, Indiana, who accompanies children and their families as they blow whistles and play maracas. Followed by musicians playing Guatemalan music on marimbas, the people usher in the traditional Las Posadas. Inside every home where the images rest, children enjoy papaya candy and homemade drinks as the adults pray and sing Christmas Carols.
Las Posadas is a nine-day celebration with origins in Spain and now celebrated mostly in Mexico and Guatemala during the evenings from December 16 to December 24. Posada means "lodging,” or "inn." Each family in a neighborhood will schedule a night to host Las Posadas. Each home has a nativity scene. The neighborhood children and adults are the pilgrims who request lodging as they carry lit candles and images of Mary and Joseph.
“There is a real pastoral need here, because the parish had been without a priest for more than a year and the diocese without a bishop for more than two years,” said Father Custer. He came to Petén during 2008 after nearly 30 years of mission 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. There are many guest houses, hotels, restaurants and homes where crafts are sold,” said Father Custer as he explained that tourism was a popular local industry (the area is near the ancient ruins of Tikal and Belize is not far away) but a significant part of the community is poor.
Father Custer’s spiritual ministry includes evangelization groups and catechesis for children preparing for confirmation and the other sacraments. The priest also is engaged in the issues that affect the social lives of the people. These include human rights, land titles and domestic violence.
In both Nicaragua and Guatemala, Father Custer has seen violence and civil war, and he has personally been threatened with death. The violence he sees today in Guatemala worries him.
“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,” said Father Custer. “Now it seems that extortion is an everyday occurrence. There are kidnappings, bus drivers are murdered every day, and there is a good deal of gang activity. I lived in wartime when I was in Nicaragua, but I never felt the anxiety I feel here in Guatemala.”
If the work continues to go well and if he sees that his involvement is needed by the parishioners, Father Custer will remain with the people of Guatemala a bit longer. The children look forward to having the smiling priest accompany them again this December as they search for Las Posadas.
The Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers is the overseas mission outreach of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, following Jesus in serving the poor and others in need in 28 countries that include the U.S. All Catholics are called to mission through baptism, and Maryknoll’s mission education outreach in parishes and schools throughout the country engages U.S. Catholics in mission through prayer, donations, as volunteers and through vocations.
During 2011, Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers is commemorating its centennial with a theme of The Gift of Mission – The Maryknoll Journey. These missionaries will celebrate as they continue their journey into the next 100 years to share God’s love and the Gospel in combating poverty, providing healthcare, building communities and promoting human rights.
David R. Arquije writes for Maryknoll magazine.
To learn more about Father Edward Custer, please visit the Maryknoll Society at http://tinyurl.com/69akyls .