The name Guatemala comes from náhuatl Quauhtemallan, ‘place of many trees’ and its location is on the extreme north-west of Central America. The indigenous culture derives from a Mayan legacy and from the Spanish influence of the colonial period. The country has tremendous natural beauty. Its official language is Spanish and there are also 23 Mayan dialects, and the languages of the xinca and the garifuna peoples. It covers an area of 108,889 square kms and it has about 14 million inhabitants, a third of whom come from indigenous peoples.
We will deal here briefly also with the countries close to Guatemala that will be involved with the trip of the president and co-president of the Focolare. The idea of a united Central America has caught on in many parts of society, in the political arena, and led to an attempt to have open borders and to discover a Central American identity.
Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua are the countries of this region which is rich in its ethnic diversity. Its peoples have suffered a great deal, with more than 40 years of military dictatorship resulting in the civil wars of the 70s and 80s and of ‘internal armed conflict’, which in Nicaragua began at about the same time as the cold war in Europe.
There were more the 36 years of armed struggle, with thousands of victims, genocide, persecution of the Church, summary executions, assassination of priests and catechists, among them Mgr Romero and Mgr Gerardi, devastated lands and the violation of human rights. In the 80s about 90% of the populace in Guatemala was made up of indigenous people, now it is estimated at 51%.
In the 90s peace was consolidated and a new stage began. The postwar conditions meant that this was not easy as there was an ongoing lack of security, family breakdown and emigration by many in search of work. These difficulties have since been caught up in new problems such as drug trafficking, gang warfare and extortion. These countries are among those with the world’s lowest Human Development Index (HDI) but, despite this, their peoples maintain hope born of their faith in God, are tremendously generous and they never give up.
The Ideal of unity came to these lands in the 80s and, in the midst of the remaining challenges faced by all, it contributes to dialogue among cultures and different ethnic groups and encourages a deep mutual acceptance.
A small Focolare community was started in Guatamala by an Italian priest, Fr Vitale Traina. Some of its members, a short while later, went to a Mariapolis in Mexico, and when they got back they were full of enthusiasm and wished to bring this life to others. In 1981 they held two Mariapolises in Guatemala. 1986 was an important year: a focolare house was opened. Valeria Ronchetti, one of Chiara Lubich’s first companions, during a visit laid the basis for the establishment of a Mariapolis Centre and two married focolarini, Paolo and Pinella Maciotta, moved from Italy. The Ideal of unity also began to spread beyond the capital to an indigenous region near Patzun.
In February 1992 the Mariapolis Centre St Mary of the Focolarini was opened. It was to become a formation centre for all the different nations of the region. With the help of AMU (Azione per un Mondo Unito, meaning Action for a United World), an NGO set up by Focolare Members, there was established a ‘School for Human Development’ close to the Mariapolis Centre. The school has helped large numbers of people learn a trade to live by. Later on the Fiore Educational Centre (an early learning centre and primary school) was established. There are at present about 3,100 members of the Movement.
El Salvador had its first Mariapolis in 1982, with about 600 people. It was a real miracle given the extremely difficult conditions caused by the country’s civil war that had broken out two years before. It could be said that that Mariapolis marked the Movement’s consolidation as it included many people who would become core members. Today in the nation’s capital, the city of San Salvador, there are centres that coordinate the Movement’s life in the five countries of Central America.
In Honduras apparently by a luck. Someone went to Mexico to study Catholic literature and by chance met the focolare. In June of the same year, 1981, the same person went back to Mexico together with two others in order to go to the Mariapolis. In 1982 the focolarine in Mexico started going to Honduras and, in the capital city, a decisive event for the small community living the Word of Life took place with the arrival from Italy of the Turatti family, who stayed 10 years. An key moment was in 1995, when the first Mariapolis, of about 250 people, was held. The bishop Mgr Oscar Andrés Rodríguez, now a cardinal, was present and he encouraged everyone to take the spirituality of unity everywhere. He asked Chiara Lubich several times for a centre of the Movement to be opened and his dream became real in February 2010 when the focolarine set up house in Tegucigalpa. There are now about 900 members of the Movement in Honduras.
In December this year Maria Voce, in conversation with the focolarini from Guatemala, during a conference in Castelgandolfo, considering the difficult situation of the peoples where they were living, encouraged them to behave as Jesus did: ‘Jesus did not despair, because he looked within himself. That is, he looked to his relationship with God and knew that God would carry out his plan even in this situation… A plan that passes, perhaps, via the cross, via persecution, that passes today via these catechists who have been killed, via these priests who have been killed, that passes via drug traffickers, but it is part of God’s story that, despite everything, builds up humanity. It is a story with pages of light, pages of pain, beautiful moments, difficult moments, but they are God’s story.’
What needs to be done then? ‘Into this story of God we too enter, as Jesus entered in his time. What do I do in Salvador with such an immense Ideal in the face of these situations? What do I do in Guatemala with this power of Jesus within me, among us, in this situation? I do what he did. I pass though the streets, I look, but my looking is full of God and of what God is doing. So, it seems to me that it is here that our strength lies.’