Syracuse Diocese native follows the long and winding road
By father mike bassano, mm / SUN contributing writer
The great poet Antonio Machado, who was forced into exile during the Spanish Civil War, wrote a poem about life as an unfolding journey. He wrote “Caminante no hay camino; se hace camino al andar” (Fellow travelers, there is no road; one makes the road by walking). I have reflected upon these words for many years and have come to understand them as the essence of my own unfolding mission journey.
When I was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Syracuse in 1975, my commitment was to remain in the diocese, serving the people there for the rest of my life. But something changed within me. In 1980, when I read about the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador along with the brutal killings of the Maryknoll Sisters and their companions, I felt a calling deep within me to go beyond the confines and boundaries of my own diocese and enter into mission on a wider level with the world-wide church.
Upon receiving permission from my bishop in 1987, I was sent to Chile as an associate priest with Maryknoll for 10 years. The experience in Chile living among the poor during the closing years of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet affected the course of my life journey. I was invited by the poor people living in the pablacion (barrio) to become part of their lives and join in their struggle for a better life. With them, I marched into the streets protesting the human rights abuses against the poor, denouncing torture, supporting those families whose family members were killed or made to disappear by the military. We instilled hope for a brighter future as we shared the Eucharist and formed Christian-based communities in the parish to deepen our life in God and with each other.
One time when I was on a silent five day retreat, my spiritual director, who was a Trappist monk named Father Jorge Peterson, asked me if I ever thought of dramatizing the Gospel in the streets of Chile. He knew of my desire to creatively live the Gospel of Jesus to uplift the lives of the people. Acting upon his suggestion, I found a way to do it by interpreting a dramatic text through a street presentation. A new journey began to unfold. Upon completion of 10 years in Chile, I knew that I wanted to remain overseas with Maryknoll and asked the newly-installed bishop of my diocese, Bishop James Moynihan, for permission to join Maryknoll for the rest of my life. When he said “yes,” I began the process to become a permanent Maryknoll Missioner in 1998 and was assigned to Thailand based on my request to be among the people of Asia.
In these past years in Thailand, the journey has led me to live in a poor slum of Bangkok, working with abandoned children and among adults as well as children suffering with HIV/Aids. It has also led me to the northern part of Thailand among the indigenous tribes, especially the Akha and Lahu peoples. It was an unforgettable experience living among these peoples living in the mountains and sharing in their way of life and their struggles to be accepted as people with dignity and value. Our simple but profound liturgical celebration in those small bamboo hut chapels during Christmas and Easter remains etched in my memory forever.
The most unexpected part of the journey in Thailand was to find myself in a Buddhist Temple which became a hospice temple for people struggling to live with HIV/Aids in 1992. I felt moved to make a visit to this temple just two hours north of Bangkok in a small city called Lopburi. After that visit I sensed that this is where God was calling me — to be in mission among my Buddhist sisters and brothers, in mutual sharing of compassion that transcends religion, nationality, culture and language. My experience of life here since 2003 has shaped both my inner and outer journey of life.
When I came home to the States for a visit in May/June 2006, I felt a movement of the Spirit to take on a new mission journey to Africa — possibly Tanzania — continuing to be among people suffering with Aids or whatever the need may be. There may be an upcoming assignment for me to Africa sometime in the year 2007 by our Superior General Father John Sivalon and the General Council.
Whatever is to be, I trust in the ongoing journey of compassion wherever it leads us, for “the road is made by walking.”