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By Eric A. Clayton

I sat across from Teresa on the porch just outside of her home trying to suppress the giddiness one feels when they’re about to interview a celebrity.

I was sweating — more to do with the extreme heat than nerves. I’d been sweating ever since stepping foot on Belizean soil. The country was (is) suffering from historic heat, wildfires and water shortages. But in that moment, we were enjoying the shade of the awning that covered Teresa’s porch. Her home was one of a few dozen tucked away amidst towering palm trees and sparkling orange flowers and other sparks of greenery just off the main road.

I had never met Teresa before; I’d only learned about her and her work a few hours earlier. But the work she does, the role she fills, is one I have read much about: It was Pope Francis himself who drew the world’s attention to individuals like Teresa. And so, sitting there on that shaded porch, listening to a combination of chuckling chickens and roaring machinery, I felt as though I was about to gain sacred insight into what it means to be a global Church.

Teresa is a catechist and a member of St. Peter Claver Parish — a parish like no other I’ve ever been to. While the building bearing that name is to be found near the center of Punta Gorda, Belize — a southern town in the southernmost district, Toledo — the parish itself is made up of roughly 30 churches (and a similar number of schools). Some are a simple 15-minute drive away; others take hours and become unreachable when the rains come and the bridges flood.

Each of these churches are spiritual homes to distinct communities. And catechists like Teresa are responsible for any number of pastoral duties, ranging from holding communion services to visiting the sick to simply checking in on community members who haven’t been heard from recently. They do all this in close coordination with the Jesuit priests who are assigned to St. Peter Claver.

In “Querida Amazonia,” Pope Francis writes: “Priests are necessary, but this does not mean that permanent deacons, religious women and lay persons can not regularly assume important responsibilities for the growth of communities … Consequently, it is not simply a question of facilitating a greater presence of ordained ministers who can celebrate the Eucharist. That would be a very narrow aim, were we not also to strive to awaken new life in communities. We need to promote an encounter with God’s word and growth in holiness.” (92-93)

The Jesuits have been in Punta Gorda for a very long time. The parish was founded in 1862 and is currently cared for by Jesuits of the U.S. Central Southern Province. But these Jesuits can’t be in more than one place at a time. And some of these church communities may go months without a priest available to preside at Mass. And so, individuals like Teresa are essential lay leaders in both their specific villages and in the Catholic community of Punta Gorda at large.

Pope Francis emphasizes this point in “Querida Amazonia:” “The one who presides at the Eucharist must foster communion, which is not just any unity, but one that welcomes the abundant variety of gifts and charisms that the Spirit pours out upon the community.” (91)

He goes on: “An authentic option for the poor and the abandoned, while motivating us to liberate them from material poverty and to defend their rights, also involves inviting them to a friendship with the Lord that can elevate and dignify them. … If we devote our lives to their service, to working for the justice and dignity that they deserve, we cannot conceal the fact that we do so because we see Christ in them and because we acknowledge the immense dignity that they have received from God, the Father who loves them with boundless love.” (63)

These passages were in my mind as I sat and listened to Teresa and to her colleagues, other catechists from other communities doing similar pastoral work. What was Christ saying through them, through their lives and ministry? What I left with, what struck me most from each person I spoke with, was this constant emphasis that their role of catechist was not just a volunteer job; it was a calling. They were responding to God uniquely at work in their lives, to Christ inviting them deeper into relationship.

Belize may not have been the country Pope Francis specifically had in mind when he wrote “Querida Amazonia.” And yet, so many of those same themes readily apply to this Central American country, this land of diverse cultures and people that sits upon the Caribbean Sea.

Here’s the thing: The Spirit is at work in new ways, I think. And that same Spirit is speaking to us, here, now. How are we being called to service in our local church? How are we being called as members of God’s global human family?

And most importantly, how will we respond to this Spirit who says: “See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? In the wilderness I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers.” (Is 43:19)

This reflection is part of the award-winning weekly email series, “Now Discern This.” If you’d like to get reflections like this one directly in your inbox every Wednesday, sign up here.

a person smiling for the cameraEric A. Clayton is the award-winning author of Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith and My Life with the Jedi: The Spirituality of Star Wars, an exploration of Star Wars through the lens of Ignatian spirituality (Loyola Press). He is the deputy director of communications at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. His essays on spirituality, parenting and pop culture have appeared in America MagazineNational Catholic ReporterU.S. Catholic, Busted Halo and more, and he is a regular contributor to Give Us This Day, and Dork Side of the Force, where he blogs about Star Wars. His fiction has been published by Black Hare Press, Small Wonders Magazine, Air and Nothingness Press and more.  Sign up for his Substack “Story Scraps” here. He lives in Baltimore, MD with his wife, two young daughters and their cat.