Panama: to reach his faithful, this priest needs a four-wheel drive vehicle

THE APOSTOLIC VICARIATE of Darién is in southern Panama, in the Rio Congo region. It is comprised of 38 communities and most of its inhabitants are rice and bean farmers. The area is very difficult to reach and caring for the faithful falls to just two diocesan priests and two female lay missionaries. Bishop Pedro Hernández Cantarero, C.M.F., applied to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) for the funding of a new four-wheel drive vehicle to ensure that Masses, catechesis, lay formation and other pastoral activities can continue despite the heavy rainfalls prevalent in this region that make roads almost impassable. ACN spoke with Father Alberto Narváez, a diocesan priest from Nicaragua who serves the people of Darién.

A procession gets underway in Darién

A typical day for Father Alberto starts at 5AM. He makes sure the car has plenty of gas and checks the tire pressure. He goes over his checklist: “umbrella, rubber boots, the satchel for Mass, a flashlight…yes, I have everything!” He has a full day ahead of him today. He hopes to make it to the communities of Peñitas and Cacao, villages that are almost impossible to reach by car on rainy days. “It happened to me once,” he says, “that horses had to tow my car because it couldn’t get any traction and I had lost control of the wheel.” He learned one thing: “You simply can’t reach these almost inaccessible areas by car when it is raining heavily. It is better to come on another day than risk your life.”

In many communities of the Apostolic Vicariate of Darién there is no telephone service, let alone internet access. In each village, “delegates of the Word” oversee Sunday worship when there is no priest on hand. These laypeople help schedule priests’ visits to particular communities. Says Father Alberto: the people “are waiting for me, they know the day and the time when we agreed to meet. But they also know that if I do not make it, it’s not because I don’t want to come, but because something kept me from getting there.” He again points out how dangerous it is when the waters of the river rise. Crossing then requires a four-wheel drive vehicle that won’t be swept away by the current. “If the vehicle does not have enough power, you are putting your own life at risk,” the priest says.

However, all the “stress of the bad roads and the fatigue” are immediately forgotten when Father Alberto reaches his destination: “You forget about yourself when you see the joyful faces of the people. All that remains is the sincere affection of a humble and simple people. That is something that gives me great strength as a priest,” he says.

Mission trips are planned with a close eye on weather conditions. “The delegates of the Word and we missionaries arrange the dates according to the feast days of the villages’ respective patron saints and the local pastoral needs. In the summer, I can reach places that are further away and spend several days there because it is impossible to travel back on the same day,” says the priest, adding: “If several communities are located fairly close together, I usually stay at each one for an hour or two, depending on how many sick people there are to visit and how many blessings, confessions or other Sacraments are requested.

After having driven hundreds of miles and visiting dozens of families and homes, Father Alberto returns home full of stories and memories of joyful faces. A full day of work has come to an end—and tomorrow awaits another day on the road.

—Monica Zorita