Sister Rita Ann Wigginton, OSU, reflects on her experiences in Peru thirty-five years ago, describing carrying Jesus in the Eucharist to those on the margins in Peru with her fellow Ursuline Sisters. She notes that Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutierrez, OP, was present at a funeral liturgy she attended in Lima. One of the key post-Vatican II leaders in liberation theology, Gutiérrez’s foundational text, Teología de la liberación, perspectivas (1971), reached its 50th anniversary in 2022. For Gutiérrez, a theology of liberation is one that seeks out the relationship between salvation and the historical process of human liberation. This meant a “preferential option for the poor” and taking a critical, reflexive look at the Catholic Church’s role in the colonization and subjugation of the peoples of Latin America. Surely, the Ursuline Sisters in Peru were living liberation theology in their ministries, including “carrying Jesus in a knapsack” to the people of San Miguel in the mountains of Peru.  Source: Fifty Years of Liberation Theology by Matthew Casey-Pariseault

When I think of my trip to Peru thirty-five years ago in 1987, I remember how we brought Christ to the mountain people—in our person and in the knapsack on our back.

Sister Isabel Lehmenkuler and I arrived in Peru August 1st to visit members of our community, the Ursuline Sisters of Louisville, and to learn about their ministry. We first stayed in a barrio in Callao, on the outskirts of Lima, where our Sisters have been since 1964. Living there now are Sisters Lelia Kirchner, Rosaire Miltenberger, Kathy Neely and a young lay missionary, Maria Scharfenberger. Maria is the niece of Sister Sue Scharfenberger, who, along with Sister Betty Albers, works with the mountain people in the village of San Miguel.

Sue had asked us to bring some consecrated hosts with us when we went to San Miguel. (There had not been a priest there in six months, and he had been only a visitor.)

We had intended to get the host from the regular Sunday Mass for the barrio people, but Father Felipe, the parish priest, cancelled the Mass because his father had just died. Since we were attending the funeral on Monday, before beginning our 24-hour bus trip to San Miguel, we decided to take hosts consecrated during the funeral Liturgy.

A motley community of people gathered for the funeral in Lima. Father Felipe’s full-time job is teaching theology at the University of Lima, so there were members of the academic community there, including liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez. Two bus loads of barrio people came. There were members of Father Felipe’s family, who were well-to-do; parishioners; Sisters; priests. The church was full and fully alive with singing.

We had brought two containers of hosts to be consecrated but left with only one because there had been so many people receiving Communion.

We returned to the Callao convent to pack our bags for our trip to San Miguel. Betty had been staying in Callao, so she would be returning to San Miguel. Kathy would also be going with us. The container of hosts carefully went into our knapsack for the long journey to the mountain.

The bus arrived two hours late. We rode for 12 hours. We transferred to a smaller bus and rode for eight more hours, going up the one-lane, winding mountain roads, breathing dust, bouncing along, becoming more and more tired—all the while, Jesus in the knapsack.

We had left Callao at 7 p.m. Monday. We arrive in San Miguel to Sue’s outstretched arms at 7 p.m. Tuesday. What a relief to have arrived!

But the “Christ-bearing” story continues.

There was a 30-day novena happening in Llapa, 10 miles from San Miguel. Every day, Sue or Betty would go there to lead the novena. This usually meant walking one way and catching the milk truck the other way. Sue went on Thursday; Isabel, Betty, Kathy, and I were to go on Friday. There was no milk truck that day, so we walked. (I was very grateful I had some backpacking experience.)

The knapsack with the hosts and its other contents—flashlights, clothing, books—was heavy. We took turns carrying it. Isabel had become sick on the way, and trip took four hours. We arrived tired and hungry, but we were in time for the novena.

On Saturday, the five of us took a trip to Sabana, a small village three miles from Llapa, for a fiesta. We luckily had “mobility”—at term the Sisters living in Peru use to mean anything from a car to a horse. This time it meant the back of a truck.

What an experience!  We held on to the side for balance, sang Spanish church songs, and watched the indescribable panoramic view of the mountainside as we rode along. The Gospel reading for that day spoke of separating the wheat from the chaff. And there they were— three men in a field with their large bowl-like implements, throwing wheat into the air and letting the wind carry the chaff away. The Gospels were alive!

Again, we were taking hosts with us: Jesus was in the knapsack.

We arrived in Sabana. The little chapel bells rang; the children proclaimed that the “priestesses”— referring to Sue and Betty—were there. We processed to the chapel, singing all the while. The celebration began. Sue proclaimed the Word. I don’t know Spanish, but I was able to tell that she spoke about Joseph the worker and Jesus the carpenter, who understood the workers’ plight. Jesus understood what a hard day’s work was all about, and he had compassion for his people. He was a country boy— a campesino.

Most of the people had not been able to receive Communion since the last fiesta, a year before. The simplicity of their faith was overwhelming to me, who takes daily Eucharist for granted. We had “borne” Christ for five days to get him to his people. What an awesome, humbling experience.

Sue, Kathy, and I returned to San Miguel that day—13 miles and four hours of walking. Again, we took turns carrying the knapsack. (Betty and Isabel stayed in Llapa overnight for the next day’s Sunday services.)

In San Miguel Sunday morning were the Baptisms of several children. The families had walked great distances to come. The faith of the people is alive; they hunger for what we take for granted. That evening was the Liturgy of the Word and a Communion service—what the Sisters call a “Celebration.” Sue asked us to help. Since Kathy knows Spanish, she read, and I was Eucharistic minister. I have done this many times at home, but this was different. “Cuerpo Christi” took on a different meaning for me.

Recalling the faces of the people, their faith as they came to receive, understanding what we had experienced in “bearing Christ” to them that entire week and how the campesinos, the barrio people, and our Sisters had “borne Christ” to me for the month of August brings tears of humility and gratitude as I remember what Jesus bore for us so many years ago and how he challenges us to continue to “do this in memory of me.”

The experiences in Peru were many and invaluable—the poverty of the people, their simplicity, the dedication of those who work with the barrio people, the warm hospitality of all we met. (Even the man who stole my camera kept smiling at me.)

But above all, what impressed me most was the people’s faith. They believe. They show it in their hope for a better future and their love for one another. Jesus is alive!

Sr. Rita Wigginton wrote this for the Catholic Chronicle, June 10, 1988.