(Editor’s Note: From time to time, Fr. Nicholas HARDING sends letters and photos about his ministry in rural Peru: this one came just in time for the holidays and we are happy to share his story.)

Greetings ! Here in Peru, being south of the equator, we are beginning summer. Since I am 15 minutes from the Pacific Ocean, it helps maintain a mild climate year-round. In January, I will begin my third year here. I am very grateful to God: good health, an exceptionally fulfilling and fascinating mission. Nevertheless, there are many difficulties and challenges. Also, the parish where I am pastor is so huge, it threatens to be overwhelming.

The most daunting aspect is reaching our towns in the high sierra (over 4,000 meters) on dangerous, windy, dirt roads at distances that can take more than 8 hours. Also, the “UPI’s” or recent invasions of squatters , with thousands of shacks (no water or drainage, no paved roads, almost no schools or clinics) is almost surreal and humanly speaking impossible to evangelize. However, that is where the Christmas message of hope in the Messiah rescues me from despair. We are only two priests to visit about 50 communities.

There is a great deal of popular piety among the people…both Afro-Peruvian and Indian. In one community, they made a Christmas tree from tires painted green. In the more developed portion of the parish, secularism has affected/infected the young. Also, there is widespread abuse of drugs and alcohol. Sects from the USA abound.

People work in the agricultural fields (citric fruit, grapes, asparagus)…very low wages by US standards. There are vast chicken farms. In the mountains there is a huge variety of potatoes. We have some maquiladoras/factories producing T-shirts (hard to believe but the wage is only about sixty dollars for a 60 hour work week). There are several polluting mines in the parish area (gold, silver, lead, copper.)

There is quite a bit of HIV, TB and zika virus (I recently had a funeral for a baby). I have had many funerals for people killed, but it is not as violent as Tijuana. We have a massive prison with 2,400 inmates.

I have had numerous instances where Divine Providence has been exceptionally evident: protection, helpful people sent to me, inspirations for solutions, delightful moments to keep a sense of humor, fine health up until now.

The Bishop of Ica, Hector Vera, came for our feast day (Christ the King) and confirmed over 300 young people. We are still doing first communions which will perhaps total 1,000. Every Saturday we do infant baptisms, which will be about 1,000 this year.

A messy part of being pastor is recruiting, animating and selecting lay leadership for ministries or apostolates. We need to balance the need for rotation: new blood versus continuity and valuable experience. I need to offer and organize formation of laity for the summer vacation period in January and February.

I am able to relax on my day off by going to the nearby ocean beach (but the water is quite cold). Also, in the parish there are ancient archaeological sites of the Chincha civilization (the Huaca Sentinela, for example). There are prehistoric petroglyphs at Huancor. There is a beautiful chapel built by Jesuits in the 17th century in the next door town of el Carmen (with Hacienda San Jose which was a slave plantation).

I think the meaning of Christmas is summed up well by St Athanasius “the Son of God became a Son of Man, so that sons of men can become sons of God.” (omiusa.org)