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Saturday, May 31, 2014

"El Padrecito" Running the Good Race

By:   Tim Brady
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Father Michael Rodriguez Father Michael Rodriguez

The Raramuri are a tribe of Native Americans inhabiting the extremely rugged, mountainous region of western Chihuahua in the Republic of Mexico. Those outside of the tribe commonly refer to them as "Tarahumara" and the mountains they inhabit are referred to as the "Sierra Tarahumara."  An integral part of the Raramuri culture is running. For the Tarahumara, running is more than simply sport, although it is certainly that. For them it is also wrapped up in their indigenous religious beliefs and ceremonies.

The Tarahumara are not native to these mountains. In pre-Colombian times they inhabited the more docile and more fertile areas that spread out in the plains to the east of these mountains. Pressure from European and Mestizo settlers who moved into these areas forced the Raramuri into their current climes, and they have adapted fairly well. They largely depend upon subsistence agriculture to survive. Drought and accompanying famine is a familiar scenario for these people.


They do not tend to live in cities, or even in small towns, preferring to live in "ranchitos" which consist of a few families living in fairly close proximity. These ranchitos are often situated in areas so remote and so precipitous that they are accessible only on foot over narrow trails not recommended for the faint-of-heart. These trails are often nearly vertical or course along the edge of precipices well over a thousand feet. It is the very nature of their living conditions that cause the Tarahumara to be such excellent runners.

These mountains are among the most rugged and inaccessible in the world. From the Sixteenth through the early Twentieth Century, almost the only other individuals to penetrate this area were Europeans intending to exploit its mineral and timber wealth. Those harvesting the timber would occupy the higher regions, while those intent on extracting ore would descend into the bottom of the canyons, which are commonly over a mile in depth. Thus it is not unusual to find small villages in the bottoms of canyons that would otherwise have no reason to be there. These villages are almost exclusively inhabited by Mestizos - Mexicans of mixed Indian and European heritage. The Tarahumara live in their isolated ranchitos in the surrounding hills. They will descend into the larger Mestizo villages for trade and other purposes.

The above is the briefest of synopses about this fascinating people and this equally fascinating region of the world. Much has been written about these topics for those more interested. One book that is an excellent treatment of the topic of running as it relates to the Raramuri is Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall.

Over time, non-Raramuri (who the Raramuri refer to as "Chabochi") began to catch on to the running prowess of these people. Mexico actually sent two of them to the Olympic games in 1928 to compete in the marathon. Certainly, a 26 mile marathon over a relatively smooth and tame course is a short hop for the Raramuri, who will commonly run for days over trails most of us would prefer not to hike, while kicking a wooden ball. The story goes that their Mexican trainers failed to advise the Tarahumara runners of the distance of the marathon, so that when the marathon was ending, they were still warming-up and surprised to learn that the race was over.

The phenomenon of ultra-marathons has gained some popularity over the last few decades. These are races which may extend fifty to one-hundred miles or more. The sport of ultra-marathon and the tribe of the Raramuri are a perfect match, and this fact was not lost on many of the pioneer ultra-marathoners. It is of this topic that the book Born to Run treats. Out of this perfect match grew one of the most famous of these competitions known as the "Caballo Blanco" ultra-marathon in the canyon-bottom village of Urique, Chihuahua, deep in Raramuri country. "Caballo Blanco" is the name given by the locals to Micah True, a pioneering ultra-marathoner who migrated to this region and honed his running skills among the Raramuri, growing to earn their trust - not an easy feat for a Chabochi.

On March 27 of 2012 Mr. True was found dead on a trail in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico, having died while pursuing his favorite past-time. This ultra-marathon is dedicated to the memory of Mr. True, the "Caballo Blanco" (White Horse.)

A bit farther north, across the Rio Grande river in the border city of El Paso, Texas, another individual was becoming interested in the sport of long-distance running. This individual is the intrepid Catholic priest, Father Michael Rodriguez, of the Diocese of El Paso.

rodriguez-reduFather Rodriguez is given to excellence in anything he undertakes, including his priesthood. He is not the type to be comfortable with settling for less than his very best effort at anything he undertakes. In a sense, his approach to running shares a similarity with the Raramuri, in that there clearly seems to be a spiritual aspect to it, apart from his love of competition and pushing himself to limits. It seems to this observer to hearken to St. Paul, who likened his time on earth to "running a good race."

Father Rodriguez has now competed in many marathons across the country and in other countries as well. One of his goals is to run a marathon in every state of the USA, and he is well on his way to realizing that goal. It was only natural that, sooner or later, Father would decide to try his hand (or feet) at an ultra-marathon. The contest he chose was the Caballo Blanco ultra-marathon in Urique, precisely one year after the death of the namesake.

Having spent considerable time in the area in my own lifetime I was invited by Father to accompany him on this little adventure, and I was privileged and thrilled to do so.

As the crow flies, Urique is not all that far from our hometown of El Paso, but the distance is deceptive, given the nature of the area. The last one-hundred miles of the journey takes as long as the first three-hundred-fifty.

The remainder of this discussion deals only tangentially with the ultra-marathon itself. The more significant story here is that of a Roman Catholic diocesan priest who exclusively offers the Traditional Latin Mass and the immediate impact such a priest and such a Mass have on a remote population which, although that Mass is in their bloodstream, has never had the opportunity to witness save the older among them. 

The first day of our journey was as easy as any similar journey in our own country and found us staying the night in the small city of Cuauhtemoc, at the foot of the Sierra Tarahumara. The next morning we boarded a train bound for Bahuichivo, the jumping-off place for the descent into the canyon inhabited by the village of Urique. From Bahuichivo we took the bus – a US school bus in a former life – to the village of Cerocahui, itself very beautiful and rich in history. Europeans first arrived here in 1679 and in the following year a Jesuit mission was established, a mission still in use.


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Dominating Cerocahui is the impressive mission church, San Francisco Javier, dating to 1680. We settled into the local rooming house across the road from the mission and Father walked over to the mission to ask permission of the local priest to offer the Holy Sacrifice there that evening and the next morning. One can only guess how long it has been since the Mass for which this Church was built and to which innumerable priests devoted their lives has been offered there. Apart from Father I was the only other mortal in attendance that first night. It was, as anyone familiar with the Mass would expect, stunningly beautiful and moving to see this Mass offered in this particular Church.

The next morning the local priest did wander in somewhere in the middle of the Mass and watched this strange Mass out of curiosity it seemed, until he just as suddenly wandered out. Following the Mass we packed our gear and headed for the dirt road that leads to the edge of the canyon and from thence down the canyon wall to Urique, a vertical six thousand feet below. Hitch-hiking is a very common form of travel in this region and we quickly caught a ride all the way to Urique over this sparsely-traveled road.

On this narrow road one winds through the pine forest until suddenly emerging on the very edge of this vast and deep canyon, into which would fit our own Grand Canyon, seemingly with a view of the entire world before you, or at the very least the entire western portion of Chihuahua. This road to Urique is treacherous. The descent is carved into the side of sheer cliffs that descend over one mile from rim to bottom. In places there is barely room for one vehicle to creep along. One month prior the mayor of Urique and his companion lurched over the side of one of the worst precipices, falling in a single drop over one thousand feet to their own particular judgments. It had been over twenty years since my last passage over this road, and what was back then a breathtaking experience was now a frightening ordeal to endure – a tribute to the forcible humbling of age.

Having arrived in Urique, our benefactor deposited us right in front of the local Catholic church, which, in the typical style of any country once Catholic, is in the center of town. I was personally pleased to be off the edge of a precipice with nothing but relatively level ground around me. Exiting the vehicle, the man in the cassock spied, we were quickly in a stranger's home seated in easy chairs drinking tea. Young boys carried our gear in. From that moment forward, we were with family, with a view of the local church right out the front door.

rodriguez-mass-redThere is no priest assigned to the village of Urique. They may have Mass once a month or so when one of the priests from Cerocahui comes down. After our settling in, the women of our new home, along with friends, opened the Church and we set to cleaning it up...moving the table to its correct position for the authentic Mass and doing the best we could to make this humble, dusty church presentable. Father offered a beautiful Holy Hour and Benediction there that night, having offered Mass earlier in Cerocahui. Holy Hour was attended only by women. Catholic masses in Mexico, and most especially in rough-and-tumble places like this, are predominately female affairs. Few males bother to attend Mass on the rare occasion a priest happens to arrive. The word subsequently got out. 

The next morning, the day before the race, Father offered his first Mass in Urique and now there was a greater number in attendance with some men among us. Another Holy Hour that night, and now some Raramuri as well as some foreigners, there for the race, were in attendance. 

The Caballo Blanco Ultramarathon begins in the dark of the morning and ends in the dark of night. Race day, 4 AM, the bells of the church toll and Father Rodriguez is found offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass prior to going out and running the rugged roads and trails for twelve hours and fifty miles. This morning the Church is even fuller. Notably, more men are in attendance --  villagers, Raramuri, and visitors and competitors there for the race. It is a sublimely satisfying thing to see. 

The race begins nearly in front of the church with the participants initially setting off in a southerly direction. After running a loop through the hills to the south they course back through town headed north. The third loop brings them back through town once more to the south, to complete one more, but different, course in that direction. Finally, those who finish, do so in front of the church. Thus the spectators may see the runners at the beginning, the end, and two intermediate points in the race.

"El Padrecito" (an affectionate term meaning "the little Father") had developed quite a following in the days leading up to the race. As I sat on a low stone wall in front of the Church with some of the local men chatting and waiting for El Padrecito to come through town on one of the circuits, one of the men, in a very poignant moment and in a very serious tone looked in my eyes and said to me, "We are going to kidnap THIS priest and keep him here so that he will give us THIS mass." (Emphasis his.)  The rest of the men nodded and grunted, as men will, in assent.

On each of his passes through the town, cheers could be heard for El Padrecito and hours later he finished the race, neither first nor last. The race he did not win, though he did his dead-level best. Hearts he did win, and likely souls as well, simply by doing the same thing scores of priests had done in these rugged canyons for centuries before him. He had brought new life to Urique and to this little church, if only for a few days. Luckily for his parishioners in Texas, the men did not make good on their threat to kidnap Fr. Rodriguez, although I rather suspect he would not have been overly disappointed if they had. 

The day following the race, just prior to departure, Father offered his last Mass in Urique – the best-attended of all, subtly using a stout stick to help his weary, aching legs rise from kneeling positions.

rodriguez-and-local-redIt is a phenomenon I have had the privilege of witnessing with some frequency over these years – that response of Catholic Faithful, deprived of authentic Catholicism, to the true and immutable liturgy of the Church that is theirs. Isolated villages lost in the bottoms of deep canyons are barely more deprived of this treasure which is legitimately theirs than are Catholics in the canyons of the large cities, small towns or suburbs of more "developed" countries. The response I have witnessed in these various places is remarkably similar and does not vary from country to country, or from dialect to dialect. It is subtle and it is profound. Nor is it limited to the person or personality of a single priest. I have witnessed this response to a number of faithful, orthodox priests in a variety of locations.

At the same time there are those communities of Catholics here and there around the world who enjoy the great benefit of a regular and steady diet of authentic Catholicism. Understandably one notes a certain relative complacence in these communities, though the underlying love for authentic Catholicism is most definitely alive and complacence does not define them by any means. What is even more moving is to witness the response when this unparalleled blessing is brought to a location inhabited by Catholics starved for the Faith, who often do not realize how starved they are until they are fed a solid meal.

Holy Mother Church is going through difficult times and though we rue it we also likely deserve it. Maybe we, too, are or were too complacent. Maybe we thought something so magnificent was unassailable. We now know better. Far from being superior in any way, we who enjoy this great grace of authentic Catholicism carry an accompanying greater obligation to promote and share it in whatever way is most accessible to us. Other than that relatively rare person who was born into the grace of authentic Catholicism most of us owe this privilege, in the natural sense, to selfless priests and others who simply arrived before we did. This greatest of treasures belongs not to any one single group but to all those who would be Catholic.

It is this universal response of sincere Catholics to authentic Catholicism that should give us heart as well. This is not to say that all erstwhile sincere Catholics universally respond, especially at the same rate, but that many do respond fairly immediately, and others given more time. The universality refers to the effect across cultures and across socioeconomic lines.

This universal response is not noted by us alone but also by those men who find themselves in positions of authority within the Mystical Body. If we are to claim to be Catholic we have no other alternative than to pray for these men and to do what we can to help them understand in that rare event they show themselves willing to consider the issue. For although they note the response it seems likely that most of them, having been strongly formed with ideas at odds with authentic Catholicism, have no contextual basis in which to place what they note. It is impossible to know what portion of them actually despises authentic Catholicism, although from time-to-time that hatred does become obvious. 

These men do not deserve our hatred in return, which only imperils our own souls, rather they deserve our pity, and, yes, our filial affection. For these men have chosen the losing side in a terrible war and something, however subliminally, must certainly tell them so however loath they are to come to grips with the fact. From that priest who wandered into the True Mass in his own church in Cerocahui to the Holy Father in Rome, these men, none of whom is ignorant, at some level realize that this de novo structure they have created and attempted to prop up is simply not sustainable and that the Catholicism which they would prefer to consider outmoded just will not go away.

It is for this very reason that they must refuse to give parity to extraordinary authentic Catholicism. They must keep some sort of lid on it in the vain hope that by so doing, this "new, improved" version will eventually grow legs of its own. They seem to realize that given its rein authentic Catholicism embarrasses the pretender.

My own view, which all are welcome to reject, is that this crisis in Christ's Church is so profound and so severe that any eventual resolution will be of supernatural impetus in a manner which none of us is able to predict. In the meantime, following the examples of St. Paul and El Padrecito and so many other good priests we have before us, we simply do our dead-level best to run the race as well as we can, helping others along the way when the opportunity presents itself, and creating opportunity where we can.




Last modified on Wednesday, August 13, 2014