Led by the “revolutionary father”, indigenous Guatemalans turn to Orthodox Christianity
(RNS) – When the clergy and seminarians of Saint-André seminary in Aguacate, Guatemala, arrive in town, they have their work cut out for them.
“On the first day, we did the liturgy, 10 baptisms and seven chrismations,” explained Fr. Thomas Manuel, Orthodox Christian priest. “Then the next day, we made another visit, we had nine confessions, the Divine Liturgy, four chrismations, three weddings and one baptism.”
The workload of men is on their own initiative. Established only a decade ago in a traditionally Roman Catholic-dominated country, Guatemala’s Orthodox Christian community is so successful that its few clergy are constantly overwhelmed.
Guatemala’s border with Mexico is a region of volcanic mountains and fertile farmland. For centuries, this region was largely occupied by the indigenous Mayan people, whose great pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilization once stretched from the Mexican Yucatan Peninsula to the Pacific coast of El Salvador.
As in the rest of Latin America, since the arrival of the Spaniards, for centuries religious expression in the region had been dominated mainly by the Roman Catholic Church.
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It changes fast. Guatemala has been in a state of religious flux since the mid-1990s and the end of the decades-long civil war.
Whereas in 1970 Guatemala was over 90% Catholic, today less than 45% of Guatemalans identify this way. Another 42% identify as Protestant, according to a 2019 report by the US State Department.
One aspect of the changing religious landscape of the country is the conversion of the indigenous peoples of the north of the country to the Orthodox Church in 2010, the work of a former charismatic Catholic priest and former parliamentarian, Fr Andrés Giron.
Long before leaving the Catholic faith, Giron became an outcast to many members of the Guatemalan establishment for his passionate support for land reform.
As a priest, Giron associated with the poorest and most downcast sections of Guatemalan society: the indigenous communities who had barely survived an attempted genocide by the Guatemalan army in the early 1980s. a profile from 1988 in the New York Times, Giron earned the nickname “Revolutionary Father” by both supporters and opponents.
Although not an indigenous himself, five members of Giron’s own family were killed amid the violence of the civil war, and in a country where the land is jealously held by a tiny but powerful elite, advocating land reform put a target on Giron’s head, forcing him, at times, to carry a weapon for his own protection or to hire armed guards as he traveled from village to village.
It is in these villages that Giron lost its illusions vis-à-vis the Catholic Church.
“They never had a privileged status in the scheme of things,” explained Fr. John Chakos, who knew Giron well. “but Father Andres began to speak on their behalf.”
Many natives flocked to worship services in Giron. “He was their hero, their Moses,” explained Chakos. “One community after another has joined their church.”
He was soon expelled from the Catholic Church for his efforts, curbing his movement. After a series of assassination attempts, he went into exile in Mexico.
The Mayans were also disappointed with Catholicism. Widely ignored by official leaders, they were also fed up with the liberation theology championed by dissident Catholic priests, which helped inspire anti-government rebels.
“People weren’t happy with the political direction of the Catholic Church,” Chakos said.
Some have withdrawn from religion altogether. About 11% of Guatemalans identify as non-religious today. Others were drawn to Pentecostals and other evangelical sects, but their appeal was limited because the leaders of these groups were aligned with government troops backed by the United States. Still others have adopted pre-Christian indigenous traditions.
In short, they were thirsty for a new direction when Giron came to lead them to Orthodoxy.
Giron had spent much of his exile in Rome, where he had discovered the Greek Orthodox Church. Upon his return, he introduced his former flock to the so-called “non-canonical” movements that are adjacent to orthodoxy.
At the same time, he contacted Chakos, who spent more than 30 years as an Orthodox priest in the United States, to discuss the possibility of integrating his community into the Orthodox mainstream.
In 2010, Giron completed his conversion to Orthodox Christianity and was followed by masses of his followers. He passed away in 2014, but others continued his work.
Estimates of the number of converts vary widely. Claims that the community numbers over 100,000 seem exaggerated: The last time the Eastern Orthodox Church saw a massive conversion on such a scale, it was the pagan Slavs of Kievan Rus, a forerunner of the Russian Empire in the 9th century. Manuel is much more conservative, putting the total between 10,000 and 15,000 at most.
What is indisputable is that in the last decade, Orthodox Christian communities have emerged in some 120 villages in northern Guatemala and southern Mexico. The largest is in Aguacate, where the seminary is located, with around 1,000 members. Most churches are approaching 100.
“It’s still a pretty impressive number of people,” said Manuel, a United States-trained missionary who moved to Guatemala with his family to help build the community into a self-sustaining parish of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Even if you put it at 8,000 or 10,000, you know, it’s still a huge population of people moving from one tradition to another overnight.
There are only five native priests to serve the community, including their vicar, Fr. Evangelios Pata, but Manuel is working hard to train more.
At present there are 10 students at St. Andrew’s Seminary – named after Andres Giron. The usual Orthodox program has been adapted to Guatemalan circumstances. Unlike the United States where seminarians must already have obtained a university degree, in St. Andrew’s they only need a high school diploma, a terminal diploma more common in Guatemala.
Another requirement is that they speak Spanish: for most of the indigenous Orthodox devotees of Guatemala, Spanish is a second language. But it is a necessary lingua franca, because in their home villages some 22 different languages are spoken.
Manuel’s students also received more practical training than most Orthodox priests.
“I consider them to be super seminars because they do everything from studies to building construction,” he said.
In addition to building churches and community centers, priests also helped set up a much-needed medical clinic at Aguacate Cathedral.
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“This medical awareness is quite extensive,” explained Chakos. “We bring in doctors from the United States, and they come to provide medical services, because the people in these villages that we serve have relatively little access to medical professionals. “
Manuel dreams of what could be done with more help. “I would like this first batch of 10 seminarians to multiply by 50”, said Manuel. He also hopes the community will be able to create more educational facilities and medical clinics as they expand.
Most importantly, he believes his job is to help them become self-sufficient communities that can forge their own spiritual path within the Orthodox Church without outside help.
Although Manuel came from a foreign country to build churches, “the true missionaries,” he said, “are the five native priests, the seminarians and all the people for whom it is their country, ie. ‘is their home “.