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"Campesino Ministry: Barriers to sacramental reception for campesinos"- by Fr. Mike McAndrew

A Commentary


A migrant farm worker said, "Reglas de la iglesia aquí nos niegan la gracia de los sacramentos." (Rules of the Church here deny us the grace of the sacraments.) It was the summer of 2007, I had been working with farm workers for about eight years when I heard these words. The campesino was speaking of barriers that people encounter for their children to be baptized or to receive the sacraments of First Eucharist and Confirmation. Rules are made in parishes for good order and to
 provide for appropriate preparation of people to receive the sacraments. Unfortunately, we inadequately consider the hardships they may place on migrants, refugees, the homeless and the poor. 

I have presented this concern to many leaders in the church. I am always assured that pastoral discretion is taken and that the poor are never denied access to the sacraments. Too often people do not experience pastoral discretion and care. The most abused and overlooked members of society are numerous. This concern needs more than individual discretion. Church leaders should examine humbly the expectations that we place, particularly on the poor. We need to assure the person or parent that the Church welcomes them and wants their family to receive the grace of Christ. 

The right to receive the sacrament

“The Christian faithful have the right to receive assistance from the sacred pastors out of the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the Word of God and the sacraments.” 
(Code of Canon Law # 213)

It is the right of the person of faith to receive the sacraments. Society has a way of being harsh with the poor, the migrant, the lost of society. The poor often come to churches fearfully. We need to welcome, comfort and receive such people with great care. The first response needs to be assurance that they are welcome in the Church. After learning about the situation of those asking for the sacraments, they should be shown a reasonable path to realizing their desired reception of the sacraments. It is inappropriate to list rules and obstacles without knowing the circumstances of the people of God. 

“The sacred ministers cannot refuse the sacraments to those who ask for them at the appropriate times....” (Code of Canon Law # 843)

As a missionary I have come to recognize that when a person experiences a conversion, it is important that the Church respond to the person at the moment of conversion. The orderly formation of children and youth in the faith includes catechetical training as the youth develop, but when a person has passed the ordinary times that children receive the sacraments, a timely response means responding to the grace of the Holy Spirit manifest in the petitioner. 

A 17-year-old woman went to a youth retreat during Lent. She had been baptized, but her family had not taken an active place in the Church. She was a senior in high school and had not received her First Eucharist. She left the retreat on fire with an intense desire to receive her First Communion. The day after the retreat she contacted her parish and was told that classes would start in September and the program would last two years. It would be over two years before she would receive her First Eucharist. It is hard to consider that a timely response for response for a 17-year-old girl about ready to leave home for college in the fall. A good friend's mother was catechist for a campesino program at a dairy. She entered the class and received sacraments by the end of the summer.

How to welcome people to the sacraments

When I began my priesthood (38 years ago) an experienced pastor instructed me that when someone asks to have their child baptized, a proper response would be as follows: "What is your baby's name?...Oh what a beautiful child...Of course we want to baptize your child." He said that after assuring them of baptism you then begin to gather necessary information. As information is gathered you may discover very committed new arrivals to the community or you may find spiritual needs in the family that can and should be addressed. The key to the pastor's instruction was, "Make them feel welcome." 

This principle of welcoming is needed by all who are called to ministry in the Church. The entire staff of a parish participates in the ministry of welcome; from the priests, the secretaries and receptionists at parish offices, to the maintenance and support staff of a parish, to the parish councils, catechists and lay ministers of a community. 

No one program serves the needs of all 

The good order of sacramental administration is needed within the Church, but we need to build into all programs an ability to meet the exceptional needs of the People of God. Ministry to the poor, the migrant and the alienated Catholic is an "inconvenient" ministry. There are so many people who need exceptions granted, that it may appear that there simply are no rules in the Church, but we must reflect on the spontaneity of Jesus in how he cared for the sick, the outcast, the poor. Our priority should be providing people with a path to Christ's mercy and love.

Do not assume that a person asking for a sacrament is not prepared. I am constantly amazed at the faith of the poor. They may not be catechized in the manor of North America, but they are Catholic and have a profound Catholic spirituality and identity. Many are unable to speak about religion and doctrine, but we need to listen to the faith of the one asking for a sacrament or a blessing. Crossing deserts, seeing someone die because of lack of medical attention, passing up a meal so that a child may have something to eat and struggling to survive in a world that loses sight of the poor demands a special faith to see God's love in the hardships of life. 

Extraordinary ministry should be more common

Many people because of their work, status of immigration, poverty and things beyond their control live in the moment. The instability of their life means that the Church must respond to them quickly. Programs of intensity and shorter duration are necessary for people on the move. 

A priest said, "I used to be upset with those who did not come to the sacraments in our ordinary structured preparation programs. It showed in the way I celebrated their baptisms and marriages. Then I realized, Jesus was touching these people in an intimate way and I had to love them as Jesus loved them. I hope that I am a better priest today as I celebrate the sacraments of the Church."

Jesus' love for the poor, the sinner and the outcast was anything but "ordinary". His compassion and gentleness with the outcasts of his time brought extraordinary conversion. We ask God for this same extraordinary love. 

Fr. Mike McAndrew is the Director of Campesino Ministry for the Diocese of Fresno, Calif.

Click HERE to read more commentaries by Fr. Mike McAndrew!





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