Costa Rica is a small but busy country. Many years of political stability, an industrious population and the right environmental characteristic, allowed the country to become the more prosperous in Central America. The Church, with its centuries old presence, is however aware that there are still areas were the Gospel did not reach or it did not take hold on the people. One such area is the diocese of Tilaran. Southworld has met Vittorino Girardi, a Comboni Missionary and bishop of Tilaran.
Bishop, can you expand on the diocese of Tilaran?
Tilaran was founded in 196, taking the territory from the older diocese of Alajuela. At that time, comprising the regions of Guanacaste, Puntarenas, and part of Alajuela, it was covering about half of the territory of Costa Rica. Today, with the creation of the dioceses of Puntarenas and Ciudad Quesada, the diocese covers about 12,500 km2, still the largest in the country, with a population of about half a million people. This area is also the one that shows greater population growth. The presence of the Church goes back to three centuries ago, yet much of the diocese is still a missionary territory. When I became bishop of Tilaran in 2002, I found that there were no religious personnel in the diocese, and only a handful of diocesan priests. I invited various Institutes, both male and female, to come and work in the diocese and help with the catechesis and the pastoral care of the people. Now we have 34 parishes, more than 600 communities, and 60 priests, but we still have to see a growth in the local clergy. Most of our personnel are from Latina America – Colombia, Chile, Salvador, Nicaragua – and Europe.
Who are the people living in Tilaran?
Most Costa Ricans are of European descent. There are some Blacks, mostly freed slaves that came on the coast of Limon to work in plantations, they were coming from Jamaica and surrounding islands. The smallest group is that of Amerindians. Here in Tilaran we have a diversified population; very few Blacks, but a good group of people of Indian origin. This indigenous group has embraced Spanish as their language, even though one can still hear words in Nawat, the language that connected them to Mexico. This area was at the fringe of the Aztec Empire. These Amerindians are now not much different from the other Costa Ricans, even though they do have distinct characteristics.
What are the most important pastoral challenges?
When we prepared the diocesan pastoral plan, the people identified a few areas of concern. First of all the family. Because of the lack of pastoral care and the distance from the heart of the country, people have developed a tradition of coming together without officialising their bond. Most families are temporary, and often it is the woman who sends the man away if she is not satisfied by their living together. The instability of families has great repercussions on the formation of youth and on the self esteem of people, especially of men.
A second area of concern is the youth. Many come from broken families and lack direction. There are few opportunities for employment, and so people try to make a living with small jobs, tilling the land. Lately, with the growth of tourism, drugs and prostitution have become a way of life for some. We are also worried about poverty. This is the poorest region of Costa Rica. We are now trying to put in action a few projects to offer training and open up new perspective for the younger generation.
You were mentioning the need of local priests …
When I arrived in the diocese I found a few seminarians, none of which became a priest. We do have some new priests; they come from families that arrived in Tilaran from other regions. At the moment there are 14 seminarians who are originally from Tilaran, I hope to ordain the first one in a few years time. The issue is linked to that of men’s self esteem. However I see a change taking shape. The presence of missionary priests and sisters is pushing some youth to enter into a vocational journey. Many decide to marry in Church; others have asked to join religious institutes. These examples are the best catechesis we could ask for. Their greater participation in Church’s life is an open proclamation of the Gospel.
Does this local Church have missionary awareness?
I believe that yes, we can say the Church in Tilaran is opening up to mission. People understand ever more clearly the importance of looking beyond our borders. I am sure that the presence of so many ministers from different countries is helping people to realize that they too have to share their experience with others. A simple example comes from the annual mission appeal. Tilaran is the diocese that collects more per head than any other in Costa Rica, and the third one in absolute. If you consider that our people are generally poorer than the average … you realize that they have accepted the importance of mission. We are also witnessing the blossoming of missionary vocations, especially among young ladies.
At the same time, I should never forget that this Church still needs support to continue the journey. We need more people to explore their vocations, more to accept a ministerial presence within their community. I see some charismas and ideas emerging here and there, yet the journey is still long.