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Do This in Memory of Me

Do This in Memory of Me

from Compass Theology Review 25 (1991) no 4, pp. 33-35; here republished with permission.

For more background information read also The Killing of Sister McCormack.

In May 1991, the McCormack family and the Sisters of St. Joseph received the sad news that Irene McCormack and Peruvians from the village of Huasahuasi in the Andes had been murdered by Sandanista terrorists.

Correcting Note.

'I am distressed to read that this report attributes the death of Sr. Irene McCormack to Sandanista terrorists. The Sandanistas won a popular uprising in Nicaragua in 1979 that ousted the corrupt Somoza family dynasty. They were on the side of the economically poor in their country. It was the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) of Peru who killed Sr. Irene. As someone who has worked in Central and South America I urge you to correct what must be an error. It would make a dreadful impression to see a group campaigning in favour of the ordination of women doing such an injustice to the millions of people who struggled at the cost of enormous loss of life to liberate themselves and their country from appalling economic poverty and illiteracy. The Sandanista revolution in Nicaragua enjoyed huge support from Christians and a number of priests took on government posts after the ousting of Somoza to forward the good of the revolution.'
Fr Michael O'Sullivan SJ

The Australian media brought to the country’s attention, concern and compassion, these tragic deaths which symbolise the struggles of poor people in Latin American countries and other oppressed peoples throughout the world. Liberation theology as a gospel reflection on real and grim experience confronted us.

While we grieve for Irene McCormack and so many victims of terror, we are grateful to her family and congregation for making available some of her recent letters.

Jesus said that no one can show greater love than by laying down life - as he did. This is what we celebrate in Eucharist. Irene McCormack, Peruvian people and missionaries lived this life of real Eucharist. These are some of Irene McCormack’s Eucharistic reflections.

Letter dated 12-2-90

“ Life just goes on as normal between these terrorist visits - it’s so peaceful and quiet, with people working hard through all the daylight hours. It’s hard to believe there’s a violent revolution going on. Coming back I didn’t feel heroic or about to do world shattering things but rather hoping only to give a little encouragement by just choosing to be here and hopefully for the young people, who use the library, for which I’m responsible, to help to ‘normalise’ life a little and give them some joy .

. . . the present and ex-Director (of the Columbans) arrived on 2nd February and the best they can promise is to send someone up for the principal feasts. The administrator of the Tarma diocese came out to concelebrate Mass with them, and to authorise the Josephites to celebrate the Sunday liturgy and to perform baptisms. We used to have two masses, one at ten and the other at five, so the Huasahuasi catechist and I are alternating leading these, and I lead the weekday liturgies requested for anniversaries. I’m limiting these to the morning, as my first commitment has been to the children and youth in the afternoons. After the priests returned to Lima, they sent the jeep back up, so at least we now have ‘wheels’, which makes getting gas and supplies from Lima so much more convenient, and of course is a security and means of escape if ever necessary.

While I said above we’ve not had any problems in Huasahuasi itself, on Fri. 19th January the army made a surprise attack on a group of Sanderistas visiting one of our near villages, which resulted in seven deaths. Edith heard the shots, and I saw the two truck loads of soldiers passing through as I was coming home from the library, but it was Sunday before we heard any details!

I know it must be hard for you in Australia to imagine life just carrying on amidst happenings like this, but it does, and I see the presence of ‘Church’ with the people at this time being more important than ever. I’ve written about the reality that we live amidst, not so you will be worrying about our safety, though we appreciate your prayer support, but simply so you know the facts and to understand how our situation can change from day to day, let alone in the three months between newsletters!”

Letter dated 17-4-90

“ On Monday 26th March I had an anniversary liturgy at 11 a.m. and when I opened the door of the Church facing on to the plaza, the group of people assembled I naturally presumed were the villagers coming in to mourn the fourteen year old who had suicided with insecticide the month previously. However I was soon informed they were a group of detainees without documents! The army had rolled in, in three commandeered trucks and a quick check up on shoppers and sellers landed a haul - in our quiet town it’s rather ludicrous carrying one’s documents when going to buy the vegetables! The officer in charge came over to introduce himself - was I glad he didn’t ask for my documents! During the liturgy I had to stop three times as I refused to continue with arms in the Church. Once it was just a young fellow sticky-beaking, the other two times it was an attempt to hassle the worshippers. I eventually promised that I’d ensure all left by the same door so they could be checked and we were left in peace. I didn’t let on I’d already helped three terrified women to escape via the sacristy I actually felt like I was a secondary principal again reprimanding teenage students, as except for a handful of officers the majority of the dose on 100 were cadets conscripts of only 17 or 18 years. Later when I went out at 1.30 p.m. to ring the bell for a funeral liturgy I had to move a bunch away to unlock the door of the bell tower (normally the sacristan’s task but he was too frightened) and like kids everywhere - one wanted to ring it.

As I was going up to meet a group of young people for liturgy practice for the Holy Week ceremonies I witnessed the passing out parade of the army on the Wednesday afternoon (11th). Though not under the same kind of personal threat of reprisal as the people, I experienced some of their sense of being abandoned and a real fear that the terrorists might get back at the town by disrupting the ceremonies and processions. However, writing this on the Tuesday after Easter, I feel profoundly grateful that my fears didn’t come true, and that whatever happens in the days and weeks ahead, the people have been fortified again by the celebration of the Paschal feast, so central to our Christian faith.

Will have to save for another time the description of the Holy Week celebrations in Huasahuasi. We presumed we were to be without a priest, so divided the preparations between us - Dot taking the Wednesday and Saturday and me Thursday and Friday. Out to eat lunch time Thursday a German missionary turned up. T. God he was flexible enough to allow most of our innovations to go ahead. I was delighted with the dramatic presentation of the Passion that I’d prepared with a group of young men (got to know them through the assemblies!) and that the priest confirmed their efforts. The Day of Resurrection is celebrated with 5 am Mass (because of the curfew it was 5.30 a.m. this year) followed by a Eucharistic procession - in silence except for prayers at the shrines at each corner of the square, though of course accompanied by a band. The devotion and reverence were profoundly moving - as was watching the sun lighting up the valley. Later there was dancing in the streets and invitations to share breakfast. There was dancing in the plaza in the afternoon too - all a contradiction to those who say the South Americans don’t appreciate the Resurrection!

Letter dated 17-7-90

“In our capacity of ‘acting parish priest’ May was an especially busy month, with many fiesta ‘masses’ in Huasahuasi itself and in lots of the villages. In a couple of places the celebration is in honour of Mary, but the principal devotion is to the ‘Cruz de Mayo’ or ‘El Senor de Mayo’. I guess in the Church calendar we’re accustomed to, the closest parallel is the feast of the Triumph of the Cross.

The format followed was this - a journey of 1 hr to 1 11/2 hrs by jeep, mostly upwards choir practice on arrival while the secretary inscribed those for baptisms, the liturgy, procession, baptism (my record for any one day is 10), dancing, and in some places lunch, or a cup of warm milk and dry buscuits

Am not sure if its a characteristic of my Australianness (that we ‘do’ first and ‘theorise’ afterwards if at all) or of my Josephiteness (brought up on Mary McKillop’s saying never see a problem(?) without seeking a remedy) or my ‘threeness’ on the enneagram! but in and from the doing in recent months I find in myself a new appreciation, a new conviction along with a new anger and resentment about two particular aspects of Eucharist and ministry. In response to the General Chapter challenge to update our study of the Eucharist, I've been reading Tad Guzie’s book ‘Jesus and the Eucharist’ and we’ve recently had two days with the Lima sisters, reflecting on this theme, so I’m motivated to strive to express where I’m at - but first back to experience. A few weeks ago I celebrated with an extended family a ‘misa de honras’ for the grandfather, dead many years. Note I’ve given up trying to use the terms ‘paraliturgy’ or ‘liturgy of the word’or any of the other ‘excuses’ the official Church uses to deny collaborative ministry it’s rightful place to women and married lay people. Try to do the ‘right’ thing and correct the people when they came asking us to celebrate their ‘misas’. I've become convinced that they are closer to the truth and were ‘freeing’ me to exercise ministry amongst them.

Now how to translate ‘Misa de honros’. ‘Misa’ speaks for itself - ‘Mass of Honour’. There is of course the element of praying for the fullness of eternal life for the person, but I suspect it is more a way of giving thanks for the life of the person and keeping his/her memory alive to the family.

After the ‘mass’ I was invited to lunch - about 60 present. A simple meal, the usual fiesta fare, was served - 1st course a potato dish, next boiled rice, a little meat and a picante sauce, finally a large bowl of maize soup. Before the food arrived as is customary we drank beer, and as usual passing around the bottle and one glass with a ‘ritual’ receiving and giving. When I first encountered this custom in Lima, I thought it was just a way of coping with a shortage of glasses, but soon learnt that it’s not that, but rather a symbol of friendship/fellowship. The last mouthful poured on the ground, my hygiene dominated background made me presume was a means of cleansing the glass, but discovered it came from giving honour to the ‘pachamama’ -’mother earth’. Thus sitting next to the old grandmother and seeing her pouring out a little each round into a container on the floor in front of her in a place of honour, I presumed it was the same tradition. On asking her about it, she gently explained that no, it was for the ‘dead one’.

Reflecting on the experience afterwards, I felt much more in touch with what the Last Supper and the Eucharist were and are on about. When Jesus said, ‘Do this in memory of me’, he couldn’t have been emphasising the ‘do this’, i.e. have a meal - which of course for the Jews always had ritual connotations including prayers and blessings over each kind of food, the breaking of bread and sharing the cup - as the apostles had always done this and for sure would continue doing so. Thus if it was pointless to command them ‘to do this’- the emphasis then had to be on the second part -‘in memory of me’, i.e. when you go on doing what you’ve so often done together, you’ll be remembering me in what you are doing.

“It seems to me, therefore, that the preoccupation of our Church leaders with power and control over who can celebrate the Eucharist, who can and who can’t receive the Eucharist, is right up the creek. It’s a contradiction to be talking about a ‘sacred meal’, and have to sit and watch, not participate. Quite apart from the lack of the atmosphere of a fellowship meal, or lack of basic symbolism when only one person drinks from the cup and we use a tasteless wafer in place of bread. Of course too our preoccupation with the only reality being the scientific, the empirical makes it hard for us to accept the validity of symbolism. Not only is it a contradiction to the proclamation of Jesus that there is no distinction between male and female, but a lack of appreciation of the plight of villagers like ours all over the world, that our Church continue denying in its official ministry that it is by natural ‘communion’. As we in our little Christian communities, high up in the Andes, gather in memory of Jesus, there is no power or authority on earth that can convince me that Jesus is not personally present. I feel grateful that these months on end without the ‘official mass’ and in a culture where I’m experiencing new symbols, has gifted me with a new appreciation of the Eucharist.”

See also: The Crucified People, from Systematic Theology - Perspectives from Liberation Theology


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