In July of this year, the diocese of Quiche in Guatemala closed its doors. The bishop made the agonizing decision to close the diocese because two of its priests had been murdered and the rest condemned to death by the government. By August, all 40 of the region's priests and nuns had left the area.
The decision to leave came not simply from fear for their lives, although that fear was real. Their departure was a strong statement to the rest of the world about the intolerable repression in Guatemala.
When asked whether the faith of the people in Quiche had suffered since the exodus, one of the priests who left responded with a compassionate smile, "Not only does the Christian life continue there; it continues more strongly than ever before."
The people of the community left behind have chosen a catechist to perform baptisms and another to officiate marriages. Others walk several miles to the capital every week to bring back consecrated hosts for the celebration of the Mass.
The response of Quiche may surprise the North American consciousness of most of us, but it is not out of character among our southern Catholic neighbors. The type of faith and leadership that emerged in Quiche is the foundation of a movement that has swept Latin America, undoing and redefining centuries-old concepts about the church. Small groupings called comunidades eclesiales de base, or base communities, have sprung up all over the continent.
Many streams have watered this movement that today includes more than 100,000 communities with several million members. In 1956 a bishop in Brazil made an annual visit to one of his parishes and was approached by an elderly woman who shared with sadness, "On Christmas Day, the three Protestant churches were all lit up and jammed with people. We could hear their hymns. But our Catholic church was shut, all its lights out, because we had not found a priest to say Mass for us."