Fr. Kirk feels part of the furniture in Peru
Kilkerley-born priest Fr. Gene Kirk has spent so long in Peru that Spanish trips off his tongue easier than English. Home on holidays, Fr. Gene, who celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination last summer, admits that he sometimes finds himself struggling for words when he celebrates mass in English.
Peru is, he said, 'a second home'. He still lives in the same parish on the outskirts of Lima that he has served in for 50 years, although he is no longer a parish priest.
'I'm too old to have a parish but I still help out in the parishes in the area,' he said, not looking like man whose next birthday will see him turn 80 and certainly not like a man who had major heart surgery 20 years ago.
He was a young man when he first went to Lima and has seen the part of the city where he lives grow from being a shanty town on the edge of the desert to a vibrant community with around half a million inhabitants.
'It began with 10,000 people and when I got there, three years later, the population had grown to 300,000 and it's now half a million.'
He lives in a simple home alongside the people he serves. 'People come to me to talk, to tell me their stories, their joys, their sorrows. Adults and youth, they all come. Any time, day or night, I'm there to listen to them.'
Working amongst the poorest, the indigenous people of South America, Fr. Gene is conscious of their struggle to improve their lives.
'The new towns which have developed are an improvement on what was here before. The people have a great desire in general to better their homes and they build them up little by little as they can afford it. They also have a big desire for education and unfortunately that's a big problem, as generally, the quality of education isn't good in the public schools poor areas,' he said.
Young people often leave school barely able to read and write, with little opportunity of getting a job.
'This is a big problem as they turn to hanging around in gangs and taking drugs as they have no hope in their lives,' said Fr. Kirk.
He is involved in a project which aims at providing classes for these young people so that they can improve their standard of education so that they can continue their studies or get a trade.
'It's natural for young people to have ideals and hopes for the future and when it's taken away from them, they get into trouble.'
He has served in the area for so long, that people now see him as a link to its past.
'I've been there with them, through their ups and downs, their struggles to improve their living conditions, to get roads, water, lighting and schools. If they didn't struggle, they would never have got anything.'
Peru is rich in natural resources but this richness has led to it being exploited by foreign companies without the native people benefitting from profits which flow out of the country.
Slogans like 'Struggle', 'In Unity There is Strength' and 'A United People Will Never Be Overcome', have a special resonance for the people he serves.
'The poor know that if they are going to achieve anything, they have to do it themselves and they are very proud of how they have united and improved their conditions. They have transformed the area where they live by their unity and strength.'
He is proud too, of the contribution which the parish has made to the community, building a bakery and two well equipped clinics for the people.
The role of the priest is seen differently in South America than in Ireland.
'People don't put the priest on a pedestal. They understand that the priest is a man with flaws, and if he makes mistakes, that is seen as him being part of the human family,' explained Fr. Kirk.
'If there was a case of a priest having a child or taking a partner, they would say "he's human". They can't understand why celibacy is such a big issue, although of course, paedophilia would be a different matter.'
'What they are looking for in a priest, is not so much tied up with celibacy, but they are looking for a man who would be meaningful to their lives, who lives close to the poor, who would be humane with others, those are the things which are important to them. If they thought a priest was hard on people, or proud, or overbearing, that would seem to them to be worse than if he broke the vows of celibacy.'
The ordination of Pope Francis was welcomed throughout South America, said Fr. Kirk.
'It was a very joyful occasion. He is a Latino, he is one of them, and the fact that he can speak their language and relate to them, means a lot. He is a very humble man. He has worked with the poor and that has brought him down to ground level,' said Fr. Kirk. 'He's trying to get back to what our Gospel was like.'