Thursday, December 29, 2011

(61) Papal Volunteers for Latin America (PAVLA) After Fifty Years I: Its Value and Role

        In 1961 Pope John XXIII appealed to the world to send missionaries and lay volunteers to help the Church in Latin America which had and still has a severe shortage of religious vocations. In addition, the Church was confronting poverty, underdevelopment, social injustice, and military dictatorships. The high class lived well at the expense of the lower class that had to live in poverty and often squalid conditions with low wages. The middle class was small and weak.

       At that Pre-Vatican II time the American Church had an abundance of religious vocations. The Maryknoll Fathers, Brothers, and Sisters along with missionaries of other orders already had a presence in Latin America.....Jesuits, Marianists, etc. They responded to the Pope's appeal with more missionaries and the other orders sent more. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops responded by forming the Society of St. James and the Papal Volunteers for Latin America (PAVLA).......similar to the Peace Corps, but with an apostolic vision. Many dioceses contributed priests to the Society of St. James to work in the missions for a few years........usually to staff a parish. At the same time many dioceses each recruited a few lay men and women to send.

        Each diocese supported the initial spiritual formation, language, and cultural training as well as the upkeep of its volunteers working in Latin America. Much of that was centrally coordinated with Fr. Raymond A. Kevane as the director out of Chicago at least during the 1960s. I was there beginning in 1965. Most volunteers were sent to a language and cultural training center for Catholic missioners in Curnevacca in Mexico or another one in Cochabamba, Bolivia. They were used by lay people as well as religious of different orders. I believe the one in Cochabamba was run by Maryknoll, but I'm not sure about Curnevacca. Both charged a tuition to keep their centers going. Since I already had language and cultural training, the Archdiocese of Baltimore sent me to Madonna House in Combermere, Ontario for two months of spiritual formation and then a month of language training in Mexico City. Providentially, they placed me with a Mexican family within a fifteen minute walk from the beautiful shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I went there every day.

        In the field, we had a regional director (John Keenan) to make assignments and help volunteers with any problems they might have. Our area included Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile.......about 200 miles from north to south.  He had his office in a center house which the volunteers could use as a place to stay while in Lima as for example, for an annual retreat.  

      An institution or mission could obtain a Papal Volunteer by simply making a request or by accepting an offer of a volunteer.  At the same time, the requester was responsible for providing the volunteer with room and board.  In most cases the volunteer helped out with the mission of an American order at the southern end of the country deep in the Andes.  I was placed with the Universidad Catolica de Santa Maria in Arequipa, the second largest city of Peru. It was founded by Fr. William Morris, a Marianist priest of the St. Louis Province. We had volunteers who worked as teachers, nurses, ran coops, did catechetical work, etc.

        PAVLA was a new endeavor feeling its way with problems and growing pains. Some volunteers were poorly selected, not well assigned, and had difficulties adjusting to the culture. The host institutions had little experience working with lay volunteers, who were often green. Some did not finish their three year commitment and went home early. Others did more than three years; I did 14 years. Ron Bosse made a career out of continuing on as a Maryknoll missioner and is still in Peru with his wife. By the late 1960s, people were questioning the cost effectiveness of PAVLA and the authorities were considering disbanding PAVLA which could not show quantifiable results as X number of conversions, X number of Baptisms, etc. By this time, the whole Church was going through the aftermath of the Vatican II Council (1962-65) with its confusion and turmoil.  Wild interpretations were made and as in the United States many missionaries were leaving the priesthood and vocations were falling off.

        I had been teaching two sections of Chemistry I plus seven or eight sections of labs, Integrated Science for Seniors, and the Pedagogy of Science Teaching, four sections of Mathematics and remedial Math in my first three years.

        At this point, I wrote the following report in early 1968. It will give a late 1960s perspective. I will divide it into four parts and then add on a fifth part with a 2011 perspective, showing the potential of the lay apostolate in the missions and contributions which former Papal Volunteers, enriched by their experience as Papal Volunteers, are continuing to make to the Church today. That will give a better perspective in evaluating the long runs benefits of PAVLA and any prospects for a revival far into the future.

1. Value and Role of PAVLA

       In evaluating PAVLA perhaps it would be appropriate to begin by examining the value and role of lay volunteers in the Latin American apostolate. Too many people see the Church as the clergy and religious and are not aware of their own individual responsibilities in the Mystical Body. They can only conclude on the basis of what they see. The overwhelming majority of foreigners working with the Church are Religious. For example, in Arequipa there are about 60 Religious and only five Papal Volunteers among the North Americans. Thus too often if not usually, any American or other foreigner anywhere near a Catholic institution or parish is called Padre or Madre. One day I walked past a group of kids speaking to a Maryknoll nun. Just like in the states she gave them the cue: “Now what do you say?” The old song with the same tune so much a part of the U.S. Catholic Schools came back in nice English: “Good morning, Father.” Perhaps this may serve to illustrate that it may be much easier to develop lay Catholic leaders for the future, if they see not only Religious but also laymen committed to the Church and working with the clergy.

        Thus it is easy to see that with laymen comprising only a small fraction of committee American Catholics in Latin America, the surface hasn't even been scratched as far as PAVLA;s reaching its potential is concerned. Once the selection procedures can be refined and the “bugs” ironed out of a very decentralized organizational structure, the program could be eventually expanded to 10 times its present size. Presently with the majority of stateside dioceses not participating or giving only token support, it is obvious that most bishops are dubious and must be sold on the program. In addition many a possible Peruvian requester does not know that PAVLA exists. PAVLA must also be sold to Latin America.

        The concept of PAVLA is beautiful. Before it was priests and religious being sent to bring the world to Christ. The laity was involved only as financial support. Now the entire Church is more deeply involved. The laity not only are giving their money and prayers but also themselves. The involvement of the North American Church then would be virtually complete with a sufficient number of lay volunteers to complement the religious. The world-wide brotherhood in the Mystical Body becomes more real and tangible. It is not only an expression of love from people to people, but also from diocese to diocese. Support of the missions through PAVLA and the St. James Fathers becomes a local effort rather than a national drive through mission magazines directed form a thousand miles away. Thus the people are involved more deeply in a more personal away. Efforts as these bring the members of the sending diocese closer together in their own Christian community.

        Also to be remembered is the potential of returning volunteers to the future North American Church. The broadness of outlook, experience, commitment, etc., that we obtain here are bound to make us more effective lay Christian leaders when we return to our own sending dioceses.

        We find additional support in the papal document, “Papal Volunteers for Apostolic Action in Latin America”, which quotes St. John Chrysostom: “We cannot place the obligation of every activity of the Church upon the priests; the burden falls upon each one of us in the Church because we are members of that one body.” When individual Catholics of each diocese realize and accept this responsibility, the doctrine of the Mystical Body is more than an abstract theological concept, but concrete and real.

        By sending lay people as well, it is more clear that the Church is a mother. Thus she is more obviously concerned with the material needs of her children in addition to their spiritual necessities. The union of body and the soul are naturally as one. Credit unions, schools, medical dispensaries, etc. are examples of this fact. Once lay people have learned the culture, religious are freed to concentrate more directly on their deeper calling. Lay people are generally more qualified in their areas of expertise.

        As so well expressed by Fr. Kevane in the May 1965 “American Ecclesiastical Review”, “Papal Volunteers are called upon to collaborate with the Church in Latin America --both clergy and laity-- in building and strengthening the human community. They are called as lay people and they work as lay people, exercising their special competence as laymen in bringing Christ Himself into the marketplace, into labor unions, government, education, and agriculture--- into every facet of life in the twentieth century.” And who knows the marketplace, but the laity who form it?

        Without de-emphasizing the obviously great work of the Religious who are called by God Himself to give their lives in the Church, we must also consider the role of the lay person who supplements their work. It is unique in that the layman at times can reach people the Religious cannot, and can bring Christ to places the religious cannot even enter. For various reasons there are people so antagonistic to Religious, they couldn't be touched by a priest “with a ten foot pole”, but may be reached by the good example of a layman. Many a person would never be reached except in a dimly lit bar over a shot of whiskey. A lay person can be a conduit of God;s grace in many ways far different than open to Religious. Often Christ can appear more relevant through the mouth and example of a well-formed layman than the most brilliant theologian. Good example may at times be more powerful than the greatest sermon which too often people take as cliche heard many times on Sunday.

        The work of the Church is vast and will require generations in this great endeavor. Each have their respective role--- one to complement the other. Since the religious are giving most of their lives and the lay volunteers only a couple years, we must realize that the religious with their permanency form the base. Thus we must often yield to their greater experience and accept their leadership while humbly offering our suggestions even though some being very human are at times too proud to listen. The lay volunteers supplement the overall mission of the Church and have their uniquely important role in doing so.

        Among the greatest benefits of the Papal Volunteers is bringing some new and fresh thinking. Despite their inexperience and risk of antagonizing the experienced religious, the new and fresh ideas may be most beneficial if correctly and prudently adapted to local conditions. Many of our American Religious have lived in the culture for so long that they in many respects fall into the system and its sometimes outmoded line of thinking that desperately needs changing. Often for reasons of expediency our older religious simply conform to the path of least resistance. Prudently we must keep the best of the old and modernize methods that no longer serve effectively.

        So much of our role is intangible, good example being the most important. Often when a religious says something or performs an act of charity, no one is really impressed. “After all, they're supposed to be that way” and it somehow doesn't apply to them. Now what does a Latino think when he sees a pretty young Papal Volunteer involved? Being shocked, he can only think, “Why isn't she home with her mother?” Thus her very presence is a living example that must have at least some eventual effect.

        A priest may preach frequent Communion with little effect, but over a period of time the example of a few lay volunteers joining their own little Christian community to the whole will influence some. One can identify himself with another lay person more easily than with a religious even though he may be a foreigner. In our everyday dealings we are observed by many and have many opportunities to be examples of love.

        Then also we make many contacts. In discussions we have opportunities to reach others, introduce ideas, suggest different methods, etc. In this area we can be just as easily a negative as a positive influence. The importance of humility cannot be overemphasized; the slightest hint of superiority or of imposing an idea (pushing too hard) can destroy a relationship even before it starts. This is especially true among relatively educated people older than the volunteer. Often to him the very presence of a volunteer is a humiliation-- a foreigner younger than himself here to help and change things. Especially teachers and youth workers have the opportunity to help form youth, the leaders of the future.


  1. Thank you Paul for writing this. I'm part of the legacy of PAVLA. My experience as a child of parents who volunteered in 1967-8 in Comas, Peru was life changing. Most of my professional career as an engineer has been dedicated to serving the disenfranchised in Central and South America along with ties to Africa. My mission continues only by the power of the Holy Spirit. Thank you for your service to others. Blessings, Steve Long

    1. I wonder if I ever met your parents. I was in Arequipa, Peru at the time you were in Comas. Could you give me your e-mail address and the e-mail addresses of your parents. I would like to add an update on their work then and now in Blog #65 below. My e-mail address is
      I actually wrote a series of five articles on PAVLA,,,,,,,this one and the next four. The most important is:
      #65 PAVLA After 50 Years (V): Long Range Effects……..What Papal Volunteers Did in Latin America (Colleagues Too) and Have Been Doing Since.

  2. I am also one of the legacy children of PAVLA and spent time with Steve Long (above) in Washington DC while our parents were undergoing cultural training. Can't remember if they were also in Puerto Rico with us for language training. We ended up in Bogota Colombia. My mom is still alive, my dad died very young in 1989 of kidney disease. The time we spent in Colombia was gratifying and holds a special place in all our memories. I am now a professor of geophysics at the University of Florida. The wanderlust I learned from PAVLA has led me around the globe. I do not have a religious mission, but I've learned to appreciate cultural differences and (I'm told) that I am very patient and quiet for an American. It was great to happen upon your blog. My mom and I were talking about PAVLA this evening and so I did a quick search and came upon this place.