Pastoral care in a hollowed-out Spain. Diary of a Serrano priest

We went to two villages in empty Spain to learn about the work of a young priest. These are areas where the population is sparse and scattered, and a small number of priests attend numerous parishes. An evolution that implies difficulties,... and many possibilities.

Carlos Azcona-January 31, 2021-Reading time: 5 minutes
Isaac Hernando González with some parishioners

Today we travel to the Burgos area of the Sierra de la Demanda. Around the capital of the region, Salas de los Infantes (in memory of the seven Infantes de Lara), eleven priests and a seminarian distribute the pastoral work to attend to the little more than 11,000 inhabitants of a population scattered in more than sixty localities. There are many and varied initiatives that, not only in this time of pandemic, but throughout the year, are carried out in the so-called archpriesthood of the Sierra of the archdiocese of Burgos.

Dispersed population

The first thing that is striking about the pastoral work of the priests in this region is the dispersion of the population in many villages. There are two large centers: Salas de los Infantes (1,955 inhabitants) and Quintanar de la Sierra (1,658); several medium-sized towns: Huerta del Rey (923), Palacios de la Sierra (725), Hontoria del Pinar (661), Vilviestre del Pinar (520), Canicosa (449), Araúzo de Miel (306) and Regumiel (340). The rest are almost sixty villages, of which barely a dozen have more than a hundred inhabitants.

We are facing a clear example, therefore, of what is the empty Spain. However, it is an area with a lot of natural charm and a quality of life that is so often lacking in the big cities. Also the peculiarities of the area mean that the task of the priests must constantly reinvent themselves, always looking for new ways to be close to the parishioners. The mere ringing of bells is no longer enough to bring people closer to the temples, many of them, by the way, authentic marvels of art. It is necessary to go house by house, family by family, one by one. As in the early days of Christianity. Getting to know each one personally is, without a doubt, one of the greatest satisfactions that a pastor of souls can experience in these circumstances.

The Pastor and the parishioners

Isaac Hernando González welcomes us in two local villages. A young priest, who is not yet in his thirties, and who is beginning his priestly ministry in these lands. Although he has known the area for three years: there he has carried out his final stage of pastoral formation as a seminarian and his year of diaconate. Specifically, since last summer he has been parish priest of Canicosa and Regumiel. Two of the municipalities that we previously described as of intermediate size.

They are undoubtedly remote places in our geography. But where any gesture, no matter how small, is always reciprocated with an enviable kindness and openness of heart. There is no doubt how well they treat the Mr. Priest in these towns; and if not, just ask him, who was recently celebrating his birthday and was surprised to see a banner hanging from the facade of the town hall: "Congratulations Isaac!

"They are very welcoming people." -he assures us, "and from the first moment they have made me feel like one of their families, opening the doors of their homes wide open to me.". It is not in vain that houses are the place par excellence where a good part of the priestly work is carried out in the villages. They are places of encounter, of meeting. Many times, to attend to the sick, who always appreciate the visit of a young and smiling priest; other times, to listen to those who need it; most of the time, for be.

During the pandemic

In fact, the current pandemic has forced everyone, even in the villages, to remain confined to their own homes. And pastoral work has necessarily had to adapt to the circumstances. As Isaac himself confesses, it is now time to devote time to phone calls. Many of the parishioners are elderly; and in addition to their children's concern that they not move from home, there is also the lack of internet access, in many cases. And, therefore, hearing a friendly voice greeting you on the other end of the telephone line, "it is something that fills them with great joy."he says.

But there are also many who have learned to use the telephone for more than just calling and receiving messages: many of the subscribers who have their YouTubeof the followers of your profile on Instagram and quite a few of his friends from his personal profile on Facebook are, undoubtedly, those who used to attend the parish regularly. Now they have to make do with these means, to follow any of the acts of piety that are transmitted through them or the formative talks given by Isaac. But all of them follow him gladly, as long as they can attend at least virtually to your parish, with your cure. It is a great help, especially for those who live alone.

However, the exceptional situation we are living in these months cannot overshadow the enormous work that is being carried out in this archpriesthood of Burgos in the Sierra. In spite of the distances, there is an atmosphere conducive to working in community. Life in the villages ends up being very routine: that is why the bakery, the bar, the store and the bank end up being regular meeting points. And many times, the activities programmed by the parish help people to get out of their routine and meet people from other villages.

Groups and pastoral care

For example, there are groups of Caritas and prayer, as well as Communion and Confirmation catechesis. A reflection group has also been set up on the occasion of the diocesan assembly that is currently taking place in Burgos. Also noteworthy is the archpriestly excursion that is organized once a year, bringing together more than two hundred people from the different towns in the area. In these excursions we always visit an emblematic place (Medinaceli, Sigüenza, Tarazona or any corner of the province of Burgos), since it is about sharing life and faith. During Lent and Advent, many people go on retreat to cultivate the spiritual dimension, taking advantage of the proximity of the Monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos. Pilgrimages to the Holy Land or Fatima have also been organized.

Of all his work, Isaac highlights "the charm of being a village priest, of knowing the people, their problems, their joys... It is a richness that is difficult to achieve in the big cities.". Even for those who do not share the faith or do not attend Mass, the parish priest remains a reference point. And his initiatives sometimes end up having an impact on them as well.

Besides, the ministry of the rural priest cannot be understood if it is not in communion with the surrounding priests. There is a good relationship among them and the people know it. Besides meeting to pray together and take walks in the area (there are wonderful pine forests), every Sunday they meet for dinner together; and there arises the possibility of exchange, of dialogue, in short, of unburdening. It is important to feel supported in order to be able to take initiatives that help people.

This is how, for example, the archpriestly youth group that has been created around the well-known dynamic of LifeTeen. There are several young priests in the archpriesthood who have been committed to this initiative from the beginning, and Isaac is one of its main promoters. These catecheses for young people and adolescents are given every two weeks, with the collaboration of Victor, the seminarian in pastoral stage, a group of university students and three other priests: Juan, Jose and Javier. As Isaac tells us, in short, it is a question of "to lead young people to an encounter with the Lord, from their own personal experience.". It also assures: "You are pleasantly surprised at the times of worship you have with them.".

He also knows many of them as students, since Isaac is the religion teacher at IES Alfoz de Lara, located in Salas de los Infantes. There he also has contact with many other children who do not normally attend the parish. For all of them, undoubtedly, it is the priestin and out of the classroom. And there are many who come to him for advice, closeness and even friendship. Proof of this are the gifts he received on the occasion of his ordination to the priesthood, as well as the presence of some of them at the ceremony.

Many and varied initiatives, which ultimately deal with something as simple - and at the same time as complex - as bringing Christ closer to souls and souls closer to Christ.

The authorCarlos Azcona

Parochial Vicar, parish of the Good Shepherd, Miranda de Ebro.

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