God connects the dots and we should always listen carefully to opportunities that arise or invitations that are offered. So last Autumn I was invited to take part in a Writer’s and Artist’s Retreat in San Francisco to take place in June. I hesitated because, after my stroke a few years ago, I’m slowing down. I don’t like traveling and like staying home more and more. Nevertheless, I have a policy of at least entertaining an invitation–finding out more about it and considering it. Maggie Gallagher–the director of the Benedict XVI Institute was organizing the retreat and she twisted my arm–and encouraged me to finish writing the stage play I had in gestation so it could be premiered at the retreat.

So I was on board for a trip from South Carolina to California–not a trip I thought I’d enjoy. But a short time later I had an invitation from the Knights of Malta in California to take part in a retreat with them in mid-July. I was already going to be on the West Coast mid-June, but there was a month in between the two events.

About the same time I received a book to review: Priest and Beggar–the story of Ven Al Schwartz  I had not heard of Al Schwartz before so it was a joy and challenge to read about his heroic life. Fr Al died of Lou Gehrig’s disease and a week or so after reading his story a parishioner met with me with the news that he had been diagnosed with ALS.

Another dot had been connected. Fr Al’s courageous story was a help to me and to my parishioners. Soon after reading about Fr Al a friend from Florida emailed asking me to accompany a pilgrimage to Mexico City to Our Lady of Guadalupe and Girlstown in Chalco–one of the boarding schools run by the Sisters of Mary–the religious order Fr Al established. I hesitated. I don’t like travel. Mexico is not on my bucket list…so I declined. Then I remembered that I was going to be on the West Coast anyway. The dates for the pilgrimage fit neatly in between the two retreats and allowed a few days of vacation in between.

Sooo. I made my way to San Francisco and shared in a wonderful retreat at St Patrick’s Seminary with Archbishop Cordeleone and a group of writers, composers, poets and artists. One of the writer was husband and wife team Joseph and Monique Gonzalez–authors of a fascinating book Guadalupe and the Flower World Prophecy. They have done an amazing amount of research into the pre-Christian cultures of Mezo-America and show how God was connecting the dots and how the vision of Our Lady to Juan Diego was the fulfillment of centuries of pre-Christian indigenous culture. I highly recommend this exciting, in depth study.

Very simply, they show that the indigenous people had a very sophisticated culture…I know I know “they were barbarians who did human sacrifice!!”…but there was more, much more to it than that, and Joseph and Monique show how this culture–communicated in flowers, song and dance—was beautiful, rich in symbolism and a real preparation for the gospel.

Which led me to fly from San Francisco to Mexico City to join the pilgrimage on Friday. On Saturday we toured the Basilica, venerated Juan Diego’s tilma – prayed in the various chapels, celebrated Mass, then on Sunday drove an hour on the bus to the town of Chalco to spend the day at GirlsTown.

Wow! What an absolutely amazing experience! We arrived in time for Mass and were taken to the gym where 3000 girls were waiting for Mass to begin. They were seated in neat rows, all in their pristine uniforms. Mass started–music was provided by their energetic choir–about 100 strong. The singing of these girls was celestial. Afterward they put on a concert for us with choir, instrumentalists and the most beautiful dancing–ballet and floor stomping flamenco. It was a riot of color, joy, music and flowers. In other words–just what the book on Guadalupe had said about the indigenous culture. Along with the other pilgrims I was floored by the whole experience. It put in priority all the petty religious squabbles we allow ourselves to indulge in.

Was the building an example of glorious gothic architecture? It was not. It was a multi purpose gym. Was the music Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony? It was hispanic music with drums, guitars, accordions and more. Were the altar boys male?

No. It’s an all girls school, but the two girls who served the Mass were beautiful, calm and efficient. They served quietly and discreetly and did a wonderful job. The singing of the 3000 girls was celestial and there was not a dry eye amongst all our American pilgrims for the beauty of it.

If you can possibly go on one of these pilgrimages you really must go. They are organized by World Villages for Children–the umbrella organization that oversees the family of schools in the Philippines, Central and South America and Africa. Go here to learn more about the pilgrimage planned for September.

Why am I so excited to share about World Villages for Children? Because they are correcting a major problem in the church today–the idea that giving people stuff is the same thing as evangelizing. Now don’t get me wrong–I’m in favor of giving people material assistance, but we are also called to spread the Catholic faith without apology and Father Al’s schools admit boys and girls from the poorest strata of society–give them a home, a new family, vocational training, an education and a dynamic, orthodox Catholic faith.

So much of our mission to the poor is just giving people stuff, and while that is praiseworthy it does little to correct the cycles of poverty and really change society. When we visited girls town in Chalco I was reminded of the beautiful Christian communities pictured I that fantastic film The Mission. The Jesuits did this too. They did not just feed people. They set up communities and imparted values that would change lives and change society.

So to conclude–all the dots were beautifully connected and out of that a fuller, richer and more exciting picture of the Catholic Church in action emerged.

If you would like to learn more about World Villages for Children or join a pilgrimage to Mexico to experience not only Our Lady of Guadalupe shrine, but also the Girlstown at Chalco go here.