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Father César Anicama witnessed some of the most ardent professions of faith while on mission in his homeland.
“People came to me in confession, crying. Their only refuge was God,” said Fr. Anicama, a priest of the Jefferson City diocese who grew up in Pisco Playa, Peru.
Ordained in 2015, he received permission from Bishop W. Shawn McKnight in 2018 to spend some time back in Peru with the Missionary Society of St. James the Apostle, serving people who are chronically poor.
He returned to parish work in central Missouri on July 1 of this year.
In anticipation of World Mission Sunday, Oct. 23, (usccb.org/events/2022/world-mission-sunday), Fr. Anicama looked back with joy and sadness at his time on mission in the nation of his birth.
“The Society of St. James is a group of diocesan priests from the United States, from the United Kingdom, from Ghana, from the Philippines, who come to Peru to serve poor people, to help Peruvian families,” he noted.
They do so by evangelizing, catechizing and providing pastoral care and social outreach.
Fr. Anicama ministered in the coastal city of Villa El Salvador, about 20 miles south of the nation’s capital.
It was the first time since the Society’s founding in 1958 that it had a priest from Peru serving in Peru.
His time there overlapped with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was a difficult situation,” he recalled. “I would bring food baskets to people, pray with them and give them masks and hand sanitizer.”
Villa El Salvador is home to about 4 million people, many of whom resettled there after fleeing the poverty of the Andes Mountains almost a half-century ago.
Life there has always been difficult. The pandemic made things substantially more so.
“There are no resources to speak of, and people couldn’t work during the pandemic,” said Fr. Anicama.
Many who needed compressed oxygen to help their COVID-weakened lungs couldn’t get it.
He noted that some of the children haven’t been able to go to school for two years, and many adults and children still wear facemasks in an effort to keep the virus from spreading.
“Here in the States, it feels like the pandemic is over, which is wonderful,” said Fr. Anicama. “In Peru, it’s a very different situation.”
He couldn’t celebrate Mass publicly because too many people were getting sick with the virus.
“It was very difficult,” he said. “A lot of people died.”
Among them were two of his cousins, ages 34 and 35.
“I’m grateful that I survived,” he said. “I didn’t get COVID. I didn’t get sick.”
Bishop McKnight stayed in contact with Fr. Anicama throughout his time in Peru.
“We had the support of the St. James Society and the Diocese of Jefferson City, which sent us donations to help the poor,” the priest stated.
New field, same mission
Fr. Anicama returned to Missouri this summer.
“This is my diocese,” he noted. “Bishop McKnight welcomed me with open arms when I came back.”
He’s now serving as associate pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish of Pettis County, with an emphasis on ministry to Hispanic Catholics.
“It’s a very busy parish,” he noted.
Since July 1, he’s presided at five weddings, along with numerous quinceañeras and baptisms.
Although the Hispanic population in the area includes people from many Spanish-speaking cultures and locales, they tend to be more alike than unalike, he said.
“We speak the same language,” he noted. “Sometimes, they have different expressions and slang, but it’s the same language.
“I do feel at home here,” he said. “The people are not unlike the people in Peru. We have a similar culture.”
What struck him most during his time in his homeland was people’s steadfast faith and total reliance on God.
“I saw the people still believing in God and turning to Him, despite the pandemic and all they were experiencing,” he said.
That’s something he recognizes in the bulk of the people he now ministers to in and near Sedalia.
“I hear many stories,” he said. “Some people are suffering because they don’t have the right documents. Some miss being home. Some miss their family.
“They seek refuge in God,” he said. “They come to Mass. The first Sunday of every month, we have a Holy Hour, and many people come for the Holy Hour and then stay for Mass.
“They are hard-working people who never forget about God or their Catholic faith, despite their difficulties,” he said. “They love to pray and make sacrifices for the Church.”
“Wherever we are”
Pope Pius XI established World Mission Sunday in 1927.
A special collection, taken up in parishes throughout the United States, benefits the Pontifical Mission Societies.
The theme Pope Francis chose for this year’s celebration is taken from the Acts of the Apostles: “You will be My witnesses,” (1:8).
It’s a message that resonates with Fr. Anicama, whose ties to this diocese go back to priests from here who served in the missions in Peru.
“You and I can be a missionary wherever we are,” he noted.
“Being a missionary is to tell of the glory of God to all the earth,” he said. “The people who need to hear about the love of God are in our own workplaces, in our own schools, in our own families, wherever we are.”
As World Mission Sunday approaches, Fr. Anicama requested prayers for more priestly and religious vocations in the Church.
“I’m the only priest in the diocese who’s a native Spanish-speaker,” he said. “I tell the people we need priests from the Hispanic community.”
He also asked for prayers “for God’s healing hand to be placed on the poorest and most abandoned people, and for those who have lost loved ones.”