Subject: Priest revives faith on horseback in remote region


TIMOR LESTE Priest revives faith on horseback in remote region

May 12, 2009 | TL07182.1549 | 630 words Text size

MANATUTO, Timor Leste (UCAN) -- Father Marcal Sequeira used to spend up to 16 hours crossing mountainous terrain and rivers to reach parishioners living in outlying areas.

The 34-year-old diocesan priest was appointed Parish Priest of Imaculada da Conceicao Natarbora, in Manatuto, eastern Timor Leste, in August 2007.

Since then he has walked miles through inhospitable terrain to visit parishioners every month. These trips can take up to 16 hours for remote outposts like Kamedar and Bariqui.

“At first I had to walk because there were no proper roads for cars and motorcycles,” he said.

Then Father Sequeira had a breakthrough when a parishioner offered him a horse to ease his travels. The priest did not feel he could accept it as a gift because the parishioner was so poor, so he bought the horse for US$80.

“The money was a gift from my family for my priestly ordination,” he said.

The new mode of transportation has revolutionized the way he works and increased the number of times he can visit his flock.

“Most of the villages are very difficult to reach especially during the rainy season,” Father Sequeira said. The Natarbora area is particularly susceptible to flooding as it is surrounded by rivers, he added.

There is no electricity in the region and only poor or no mobile-phone reception in some places. “That’s why people call Natarbora the ‘Dead Land’,” he said.

Father Marcal says the most challenging thing his parishioners face is poverty. The average Sunday Mass collection averages just US$3, not even enough to buy the hosts and wine for Mass, he pointed out.

“But I do not want prosperity as a parish priest. I have to adapt to the economic conditions of the people here,” he said.

Father Sequeira shared that he always tries to help his parishioners cope with the challenges they face.

“I celebrate Mass for them and hold meetings to listen to their problems so I can help them with their spiritual life, and bring them closer to the Church.

“I also changed the three-month pastoral visits organized by the previous parish priest to monthly visits for the farthest areas in the parish,” he added. “I visit the areas near the parish every week.”

The priest has also set up a program to meet catechists every three months to evaluate activities and to prepare new programs for the next three months.

“I also formed acolyte groups and appointed five Eucharistic ministers in the farthest areas to give Communion to people,” Father Sequeira said.

“To improve pastoral service, a group was formed to preach and explain the Gospel to the people, setting themes and providing materials for reflection, so the group can go back to their village to serve parishioners,” he said.

Even though the priest has just been in the parish for a relatively short time he has already seen some changes, especially in Sunday Mass attendance.

For those who missed Sunday Mass, “I always ask why they did not go to Sunday Mass when I meet them on the street,” he said. “This is a better way to approach parishioners.”

Lucreasia Horta, 36, a teacher at St. Francisco Assis primary school at Natarbora, said many people in the parish struggle to feed their families.

Nevertheless, many take their faith seriously. “For example, during Lenten, Catholics abstain from eating meat on Fridays and also attend the Good Friday service,” she said.

Horta is also coordinator of a Bible sharing group for school students.

Sister M. Elfrida, from the congregation of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George, said that almost no one in the parish has a Bible at home, so Bible sharing groups are helpful in faith formation.

“Through this program, children can help explain the Bible to their parents at home,” she said. 

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