Franciscan Father Christopher J. Posch describes his 18-year mission as director of Hispanic Ministry for the Wilmington diocese as being a connector and a catalyst.
He’s worked to connect Hispanic Catholics to the ministries of the diocese and parishes. And, like a catalyst in a chemical reaction, he’s helped make things happen.
“I’ve been connecting all these people and standing back,” Father Posch said. “In many situations, once I make the introductions, they just run with the ball. In other cases, resources happen, relationships happen.”
It would be easy to add “perpetual motion machine” to the affable Franciscan priest’s traits. The sandaled shepherd, who prompts folks to call him “Brother Chris,” has constantly traveled Delaware and Maryland’s Eastern Shore to serve Hispanic Catholics where they are.
However, his travels in the diocese are ending. Father Posch has been named pastor of St. Camillus Church, a Franciscan parish in Silver Spring, Md. A fellow Franciscan, Father Emerson Rodriguez, will become the next director of Hispanic Ministry in the diocese.
In almost two decades in his post, Father Posch, 53, said that while the Hispanic population has grown in the diocese, weekly Spanish Masses have increased from 10 parishes to 20.
“We’ve doubled the amount of parishes with Hispanic ministries, leadership development” and “a lot of local clergy have learned Spanish,” Father Posch said.
Estimating that there are more than 200,000 Hispanics in the diocese, the Franciscan said every Latin American country is included in the count but most Hispanic Catholics here are from Mexico, Puerto Rico and Guatemala.
Dividing his 18 years here into four segments, Father Posch said his first quarter centered on “the gathering,” finding where the Hispanic community was and bringing the people into church ministry.
His fifth through eighth years focused on leadership development and more gathering. The next quarter, he said, included gathering, leadership and a focus on youth and prison ministry.
The last four years emphasized Hispanic ministry in rural areas of the diocese, he said.
Ordained a priest in 1995, Father Posch came to Wilmington in 1998, when Bishop Saltarelli had established a plan to minister to the Spanish-speaking at the urging of Father John Hynes and others who saw the growing need.
Father Hynes, pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Parish, chaired the bishop’s task force to establish a plan for the ministry.
Father Posch recalled that Ignacio “Nacho” Franco conducted a needs assessment for Hispanic ministry that gathered about 1,000 responses.
Franco, from Mexico, “was knocking on doors,” going into “bodegas, laundromats and apartments” for the survey, Father Posch said. “He really told us where the Hispanic concentration” of people in the diocese was. “That’s what formed Bishop Saltarelli’s plans for Hispanic ministry from 1998-2002.”
At the time, Father Posch was at his first priestly assignment at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Camden, N.J. He was invited to bring the parish soccer team to Wilmington to play a St. Paul’s team here by Franciscan Father Larry Hayes, who was St. Paul’s pastor.
After the match, Father Hayes invited Father Posch into the rectory for a drink; there he found Bishop Saltarelli waiting with an invitation for him to run the diocese’s office for Hispanic Ministry.
“In those years (Franciscans) signed three-year contracts,” Father Posch recalled recently. I didn’t want to sign a contract because I was just used to parishes and, frankly, I thought ‘diocesan ministry — ugh.’ So I only signed a one-year contract.
“But I’m glad I came.”
Raised on Long Island in New York, Father Posch attended public schools there before going to the Christian Brothers’ Manhattan College.
He parents were devout Catholics; there were daily prayers in the household and his father was a catechist.
Young Chris Posch belonged to a parish youth group and made an Antioch Weekend Retreat, which he said provided him with a “teenage zeal” for the faith.
He also worked with Latin American refugees on Long Island.
“I met all these young folks who had all these horror stories from El Salvador —missing fingers, ears, faces scarred by hand grenades. They told me these stories about fleeing their land, seeing the people they loved killed and violated. I could understand half of what they said … but I couldn’t express solidarity or sympathy or support. That gave me the passion to want to learn Spanish.”
In 1985, Posch was invited on a retreat centered on St. Francis of Assisi that included watching Franco Zeffirelli’s movie on the life of the Franciscans’ founder, “Brother Sun, Sister Moon.”
“I saw it and said, ‘This is what I want to be.’ It was kind of a eureka moment.
“It was an impulse. I wanted to join [the Franciscans] right away and they said, ‘no, no, no. We have to go through this discernment and interview process.’ So I waited two years.”
In the seminary, in addition to studying Spanish in Bolivia, Father Posch specialized in “messiology,” a word for cross-cultural studies. The language and the messiology proved to be perfect preparation for his ministry in Wilmington.
Father Posch’s ministry in the diocese has been a “true expression of a follower of St Francis: humble, joyful, someone who finds his delight among the poor and the marginated, yet at home with every kind of person,” said Father Hynes, who has worked with Father Posch throughout his ministry here. St. Catherine’s pastor added that Father Posch “has a holy humor which doesn’t take adversity too seriously, but is right on top of what needs to be done. He handles it all, while seeming to be handling almost nothing.”
When Father Posch recalls his years in the diocese the memories come rapidly.
He thinks about the 57 sites where migrant laborers work on farms throughout the peninsula, farm workers near Dover and Smyrna; the farm and nursery laborers around Galena, Md., and Middletown; crab picking near Cambridge, Md.; and the ice industry migrants. Wait, ice?
“There’s an ice industry,” Father Posch explains. “In summer for seafood, restaurants have all these high school and college kids doing that stuff. But ice industry migrants come for September through May, 100 men come every year from Mexico to be ice workers.”
He talks about how the Sisters of Charity have been champions with the tomato pickers — 1,000 to 1,500 — who migrate to the diocese during the tomato harvest.
“At Masses, little girls, little boys, they put their hands out for Communion and their hands are all calluses. You see their fingers and they’re all bloodied. It’s like these kids have lost their youth.”
When Father Posch would visit migrants living in dilapidated camps, “I always asked, ‘Do you want me to say something?’ But they don’t want to lose their jobs. For the church to be a voice for the voiceless, they have to say what they want to say.”
The priest said the workers’ fear impedes progress toward better living conditions and justice.
It’s fear of the stranger that also fuels some of the anti-immigrant viewpoints in this political season, Father Posch said.
He hopes his work in the diocese has fostered acceptance and love for the “stranger,” not fear.
“The medicine is relationships,” Father Posch said. Moving from “demonizing to humanizing is part of the gospel of evangelization.
At one of the parishes where his office helped transform “special ministry” to Hispanics in the parish into normal parish life, Father Posch recalled that after one night of encounters through storytelling and sharing dinner between the English speakers and Spanish-speakers, one immigrant thanked the head of the pastoral council for the use of church.
“You don’t have to thank me; this is your church,” was the reply.
“Our thing was to make Hispanic ministry mainstream,” Father Posch said.
Mission accomplished, Brother Chris.