Thursday evening prayer services for peace and reconciliation are being held at Maria Reina Parish in La Paz, Bolivia, staffed by priests from St. Louis serving in the archdiocese’s Latin America Apostolate.
La Paz and nearby El Alto have been sites of intense clashes between Bolivia’s military and supporters of former President Evo Morales. Political turmoil broke out Oct. 20 after Morales was elected to a fourth consecutive term as president. Morales resigned Nov. 10 following weeks of riots and protests as well as a police mutiny; he was replaced by Jeanine Anez, an opposition senator.
Thirty-two people have died in post-election violence in Bolivia, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The U.S. Department of State cited “recurring demonstrations, strikes, roadblocks and marches in major cities in Bolivia. Roadblocks and strikes cut off traffic on main avenues, highways between cities, and airport access. Protesters in major cities are intermittently occupying or blocking access to public institutions and infrastructure, denying access to transportation hubs, banks and other services. Some protests have resulted in violent confrontations, and local authorities have used crowd control measures to discourage protests.”
“I don’t really know how to explain all that has been going on,” parish pastor Father Pat Hayden wrote in an email. “I believe that we will be a long time in trying to understand exactly what has happened, how and why. In any case, there is great need for reconciliation and recovering of mutual respect and fraternal charity.”
Maria Reina’s health clinic was closed on several occasions. But the parish has maintained the regular schedule of Masses. “There were many more people in all of our Sunday Masses during these past several weeks, where we included more prayers for forgiveness, reconciliation and peace,” wrote Father Hayden, who serves at the parish along with another priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Father James Michler.
Father Hayden thanked “our brothers and sisters of the Archdiocese of St. Louis for their solidarity in humble prayer and sacrificial generosity during this past month. Knowing of such spiritual communion and fellowship has been a source of great peace and strength for Father James Michler and myself, as well as for Sister Guillermina Loma, an O’Fallon Precious Blood Sister here with us, and for all of our parish community.”
Father Hayden said St. Louis is never far from their minds. “We are praying for all of you, too, knowing of the violence that continues to take lives in St. Louis and the surrounding areas. May Christ, King of justice, peace and love, reign in all of our hearts and homes and neighborhoods, and may we be faithful witnesses to his gentleness and redeeming love.”
The parishioners and staff hold Our Lady and St. Joseph close, Father Hayden added, noting that one of the prayer services was on the feast of the Presentation of Our Lady. “I spoke to our people of the tremendous, deep peace that Sts. Joachim and Anne knew at the birth of their daughter, Mary, and how that peace was Mary’s strength in the Spirit throughout her whole life. Baptism calls us to enjoy and live according to this same peace.”
Father Tim Noelker, director of the Mission Office, said a trip planned by his office to Bolivia with a group of St. Louis Catholics has been postponed. The U.S. Department of State issued a no-travel advisory Nov. 12 and ordered the departure of family members and non-emergency U.S. government employees due to the political instability in Bolivia.
Father Noelker called the St. Louis priests in Bolivia “two of the most giving priests I know, from a long line of priests dedicated to the people of Bolivia, especially those who are marginalized. We send our prayers and hope there will be dialogue” to end the strife.