Santiago, Chile. Two thousand and twenty will go down in history as the year in which, without knowing how, an unusual “Pandora’s box” was opened that let loose on the world all possible evils. It will not go unnoticed that this happened at the very moment when the sparkling bottles were being uncorked and dazzling pyrotechnics were exploding over the skies of the planet. Because on the night of December 31, 2019, China announced that humans had been infected on its soil with a new strain of “coronavirus” -until today of uncertain origin- generating a disease of devastating infectious power and mortality: Covid-19.
A month later, 8,000 people were infected in various countries, and on March 11 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Covid-19 a “pandemic” or infectious disease spread over a wide geographical area.
Of the countless pandemics recorded in history, none has so far reached the speed of spread, the global reach or the complexity of consequences that Covid-19 has brought with it. To the point that analysts from different fields agree that humanity is not living through an era of change, but a change of era.
But what relation can this have with Venerable Father Mariano Avellana? There is neither space nor time here to attempt an answer, but it is worthwhile to offer a few reflections.
Disposition, commitment and consequence
The figure of Mariano Avellana has illuminated for more than a century the Claretian family -religious and laity- as an example of resounding dedication to missionary commitment, the essence of the charism impressed on his followers by the holy Founder.
To seek “the face” or will of the Lord in one’s own existence, to find it in the redemptive sending to the most suffering and helpless “chained ones”, to assume it with a commitment of full and total surrender, offering one’s life if necessary, and to fulfill it to the last consequences, summarizes the style with which Mariano Avellana, at 29 years old, set foot in an unknown country to give it 30 years of untiring evangelization, with a “heroism” that Pope John Paul II recognized when he declared him “venerable”.
On his journey through dusty roads, fields, villages, deserts and mountains, Mariano was confronted with the scourges of a country that was taking its first steps from an agrarian economy based on labor exploitation, horrendous poverty, injustice and abandonment of most of its population, towards an incipient industrialization and a precarious urban development where emigration from the countryside multiplied in infectious suburbs the contagions, plagues and dreaded epidemics.
Such was the reality of Chile where the first Claretians settled in 1870 and Mariano Avellana joined three years later.Those suffering evangelizers knew well the way in which masses of poor people were decimated by successive scourges such as cholera, dysentery, typhus, smallpox or tuberculosis, in a country where life expectancy did not reach 30 years.
Missionaries in the midst of such a reality, it was not uncommon for them to become infected. Even Fr. Francisco Berenguer died serving the smallpox-ridden. They had an example: Claret’s companions died infected in the midst of the ardor with which the founder evangelized in Cuba. Later, the first Claretians who sought to settle on the island were decimated by the plagues. The same happened when they assumed their first mission in the mythical Fernando Póo, today Equatorial Guinea. Meanwhile, the painful herpes that tormented Father Mariano for twenty years until his death, could have perhaps been infected. The wound on his leg, which in ten years became a huge sore, was perhaps the work of a transmissible bacterium, perhaps a variant of what is now called the “killer bacteria”.
The epochal change humanity is facing today is not merely a consequence of the coronavirus and its increasing mutations, which in little more than a year have infected almost 120 million people and killed some 2,650,000.
Numerous situations concomitant with the pandemic generate day after day new changes, profound crises, political and social upheavals, unpredictable economic fluctuations, unemployment, poverty and worrying hunger, as well as transcendental technological advances that will profoundly modify work systems, family and social life, with both positive and disastrous consequences. The short- and medium-term outlook for the planet itself is uncertain, as it is being irrationally attacked by human beings to the point of seriously endangering its own survival.
Faced with such a complex panorama, several analysts conclude that humanity is not only facing today the most aggressive pandemic in its history. Of equal or greater gravity will be the consequences that, like so many other pandemics, it is generating in numerous structures on which the life of current generations is based.
Does Father Mariano have anything to say?
For more than 30 years the Claretian family, and especially that of this corner of America, has been begging the Lord to deign to perform through the intercession of the venerable missionary the complete miracle that will allow his prompt beatification. This is an objective that the highest superiority of the Congregation is currently encouraging as a relevant task. This in consideration of the singular privilege that 184 of its martyrs of the XX century have been beatified in the last three decades. Mariano Avellana to his missionary commitment, in a kind of daily martyrdom that made him, like his brother martyrs, “a missionary to the end”.
But it is reasonable to clarify the objectives sought with the beatification of this admirable model of Claretian missionary. A primary one is, precisely, to highlight his virtues as a questioning example of evangelizer among the poorest, suffering and abandoned, that his devotees are called to follow.
The task that the global pandemic and its consequences are beginning to project is still immeasurable. The challenges grow from day to day. Along with asking “what would Father Mariano do in my place?”, it will be necessary to temper the spirit, to draw on the resources he employed and those offered by today’s world. And do not forget that Pandora’s curiosity led her to open her box and throw into the world all the possible evils, but she managed to close it when only one good spirit remained in it: the spirit of hope. Since then, the last thing to be lost is, precisely, hope.
Alfredo Barahona Zuleta