Saturday, 13 April 2019

Last Night

As I write this post I am just after getting up out of bed on my last night here to spray insecticide in my room to try to do something about the mosquitos. The last two weeks haven't been bad but, for some reason, tonight they have returned. Now that I have sprayed the room I will have to wait for about an hour before I can go back to bed, otherwise I will be poisoning not only the mosquitos, but myself too.

I was already feeling sad about leaving tomorrow (today really), but now I am really feeling sorry for myself.

I have packed everything that needs to be packed; finished up all of the marking and correcting; said my goodbyes; and also spent an inordinate amount of time trying to download a boarding pass, but that 's another story - now I have only one more Mass to say and then it's off to the airport for a ten hour flight to Madrid, a five hour wait there, and then on to Dublin where I should arrive some time on Monday evening.

Already there are plans for next year - to do some work with the priests of a number of dioceses on ongoing formation; to get involved with the Catholic University; and to increase the number of courses in the Lay Institute to three (the seminary will continue to mean teaching two or three courses, depending on who else is available).

A very worthwhile visit and I can honestly say that I have learned a lot from the wonderful people I have met while I was here.

Thursday, 11 April 2019


I have been busy over the last few days with students, both seminarians and in the Lay Institute, doing exams. I am really pleased that all students in the Lay Institute passed the exam without difficulty. This is particularly important since many of these people have had little contact with formal education and for some of them, this was the first time they had ever sat an exam - it is a big achievement that shouldn't be underestimated. The majority of these 60 students will now continue with the rest of the year's course and I hope to meet some of them again at other courses as they progress towards an eventual degree.

The seminarians, on the other hand, have not fared so well. Most of those who have done the oral exam so far have done well, but not all - we will be organising some sort of essay so that they can have another go via email after I have left Panama.

Exams will continue right up until Friday, and then I will leave on Sunday after celebrating Palm Sunday Mass in the Hogar San José - the centre run by Mother Teresa's nuns that cares for the handicapped and the abandoned (and, especially, the abandoned handicapped).

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Last Minute Risks

I am now beginning my final week here - the week that is always the most difficult. Some courses have finished up already and I will begin exams tomorrow. Others will not finish until Thursday. This week will be a week of tidying up loose ends and packing the bag before the long flight home.

Even those attending the lectures in the Lay Institute must do exams: they are important because, on completion of their course, they can apply to attend the Catholic University (USMA) and do a degree. The INFAP (Lay Institute) and the course provided there will be accepted as their matriculation exam.

Yesterday I went to visit a sick priest in the town of Chitré - about a three and a half hour drive. It was a very long day but, thankfully, he is recovering from a serious bout of Crone's disease which caused him to lose a huge amount of blood, which nearly killed him.

The journey nearly killed me!!! I counted seven near misses that were caused by our driver, during any of which we could have been killed: and that is not counting the near misses that were caused by others. Driving here is deadly dangerous. I had been beginning to think that perphaps, after all, I should start driving here, but after yesterday's experience - there is absolutely no way!!!

We skirted articulated lorries; we bounced all over the road due to huge potholes; we almost rammed several cars who decided, for on apparent reason to either stop or turn without any indication; we at one stage raced another car to fit through a cap between two concrete barriers blocking the road - at one stage we were neck and neck: I don't know who made it through the gap first because I couldn't look any more. All I do know is that I was never so glad to see the seminary as when we pulled up outside it last night after what had been a fourteen hour journey.

Friday, 5 April 2019

Best laid plans...

As you may be aware, over the last number of years a second Panama Canal was built. This was to cope with the fact that modern ships such as super tankers are much bigger than their predecessors. This massive pieces of engineering were just too big to be able to pass through the original Panama Canal so something had to be done. Having studied the issue for some time it was realised that the most economic way to cope with the problem was to build a new canal, parallel to the original one.

The second canal was inaugurated around two years ago and there are actually two Panama Canals. They both operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This is truly a massive operation which represents a significant income source for the Panamanian state. As I have mentioned earlier, ships book their passage through the canal for up to 7 years before they are due to travel. The toll to pass through the canal is fixed in accordance with the value of the cargo which means that some ships will pay several million dollars for that one journey. Apparently, it is still worth it as the alternative - to travel down around the tip of Tierra del Fuego, in Argentina - is even more costly. Of course, apart from the cost of the journey, the other reason that the Panama Canal is so important is that foodstuffs and perishable goods would decay and not survive the longer journey.

All has been going well with the administration of the double canal until yesterday when there was a very unusual challenge to be faced. A very large cruise ship, carrying passengers, was passing through the canal when it became clear that the difficulty wasn't going to be its displacement (its physical size) but its height.

Passing through the canal all ships must pass beneath the Puente de las Americas (The Bridge of the Americas) which is a massive construction that spans the canal. As its name suggests, this bridge connects North and South America. Despite the bridge's massive height (117m), the cruise ship was in a tricky position.

The only solution turned out to be to wait until low tide and then to proceed under the bridge. As it did so it was shephered by tug boats and watched over by helicopters to make sue it would make it, which it did - but with very little room to spare.

It seems that each time an engineering problem is overcome, another one is waiting in the wings to mess up the best laid plans...

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Bishop Urias Ashley

The day before yesterday Bishop Urias Ashley came to live in the seminary. Bishop Urias has just reached the age of retirement (75) but I'm not sure that the Holy See has accepted it yet. In fact, it is of no account whether or not they have accepted it because he is now laid low by illness. He has had several recent hospitalisations and is currently undergoing dialysis treatment due to damage done by diabetes.

Rather unusually, he began his episcopate as an Ordinary - that means that he was bishop of a particular see: in his case, the Diocese of Penomoné. He then was transferred to be Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Panama which is currently under the care of the Augustinian bishop, Mons. José Domingo Ulloa. There is another Auxiliary Bishop in the diocese too - as far as I know, he is Spanish in origin.

Urias' arrival to the seminary has necessitated some changes. While he is quite independent, he doesn't see well, and has some difficulty walking. It is therefore prudent that he be accommpanied whenever possible as he is inclined to like to stroll about during the day.

This is another task for the seminarians who already have a lot on their plate but it is very evident that they have great respect for this man and are very pleased to be involved as his care-givers.

In the picture you can see Bishop Urias on the left; on the right is the Augustinian Archbishop; and in the middle is the man who was Papal Nuncio here (now transferred to Ecuador) who is a Spaniard.

Monday, 1 April 2019

Hot Water

I have already commented here on the importance of having a bin filled with water in the shower at all times, to be ready for the day when the water is cut off. Showering in cold water is normal here. It does take some getting used to but it is also a good way to cool down. Personally, I am convinced that there is nothing like hot water to really clean yourself but, when that option isn't there, cold water is second best.

It can be a bit of a challenge, first thing in the morning, to put yourself under the cold flow of water but, once the body has acclimatised, it's fine. Having had the experience (last year) of the water being cut off almost every weekend, I am grateful that, so far anyway, we have had water all of the time I have been here.

This morning was a first for me - I had hot water in the shower!!! Well, not really hot, but warm water. The tank which supplies the seminary is a large metal one, not unlike the back part of a petrol tanker. Having been exposed to the extreme heat over the last few days the water had heated up considerably. Of course, what helps in this scenario is that most of the seminarians are not here over the weekends - they go to parishes and other places to do pastoral work. This means that the water in the tank isn't consumed, leaving it the opportunity to heat up a bit.

I was obviously one of the first to get up this morning (4.30am) which meant that I had the benefit of the warm water. When I commented on it at the breakfast table the others were surprised, as they had had only cold showers. The early bird catches the warm water!!!

Saturday, 30 March 2019

"Gods make their own importance..."

It becomes pretty clear here, quite quickly, that many of the people here have only a vague idea of where Ireland might be, geographically. Those who can identify it on the map generally think it is part of the United Kingdom. And most people seem to think that Northern Ireland is a completely separate island to the rest of Ireland. Many people ask what type of government have we and, even when I tell them that we are a republic, they presume, because Ireland is so closely linked to Britain in their minds, that we have a Queen, or some sort of royal family. The idea that Ireland has two official languages is entirely surprising to them, and quite a few of them are under the impression that there is an armed conflict going on between the army of the Republic of Ireland and the army of Great Britain.

It's not hard to understand how some of this confusion arises. European news is not reported very much here, and what they "know" about Ireland has been pieced together from snippets they have picked up from different places, with no particular order, and no organising principle.
Mind you, it has also been my experience that most Irish people know very little about Panama. Those who do know something about it know about the Canal and the Panama Hat - but the Panama Hat is actually Ecuadorian.

I think that it is fair to say that most Europeans have only a passing familiarity with Central and South American geography and that current events in the countries of this region are largely unknown among most people in Ireland and other European countries. That Nicaragua is in a state of near collapse; that Venezuela is currently going through an undeclared civil war; and that huge numbers are fleeing hunger and poverty in Cuba are just some of the things that might surprise Europeans who begin to look at this region.

It is therefore surprising that Brexit has become such a familiar word for people here. While it is true to say that most of them have no clear idea of what it is about or about why there is so much fuss about it, it is also true that most Europeans also have a lot of difficulty understanding it. Recent votes in Westminster have made it clear that one clear vision for Brexit just does not exist; the future for Britian's relationship with Europe remains unclear; and what a border in Ireland, whether hard or soft, might come to mean, is anyone's guess.

In an age of instant global communication it is very striking that world-changing events in different parts of the world remain local issues. I am reminded of Patrick Kavanagh's wonderful poem, written 90 years ago, Epic:

EPIC by PATRICK KAVANAGH, 1938 I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided : who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man's land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.

I heard the Duffys shouting "Damn your soul"
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel -
"Here is the march along these iron stones."

That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was most important ? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer's ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said : I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.