Twentieth century martyrs

Today is the feast day of several twentieth century martyrs.

St. Toribio Romo (1900-1928) was a Mexican priest who was killed during the time of the Cristero rebellion. He was not involved directly in the rebellion but had continued his ministry despite the prohibitions of the authorities. On February 28, 1928, soldiers broke into his room and shot him.

His short life has been overshadowed by a ministry that he has assumed after death. A number of migrants from Mexico to the United States have be assisted by a young priest when they were in dire circumstances who identified himself as Toribio Romo. A few stories can be found here. He is thus invoked as a protector of migrants, many of whom visit his shrine in Santa Ana de Guadalupe, Jalisco.

Today is also the feast of Blessed Franz Jägerstëtter (1907-1943), an Austrian peasant who refused to serve in Hitler’s army, despite the admonitions of friends and clergy. He saw Nazism as a train headed to hell and refused to be part of this. His story would have been forgotten if the US Catholic sociologist Gordon Zahn had not published his life and some of his letters in the early 1960s in the book In Solitary Witness. His witness against war influenced many, including me, in our opposition to the Viet Nam war and to war in general.

Today is also the anniversary of the martyrdom in 1996 of the Trappist Martyrs of Our Lady of Atlas in Algiers. Their story is beautifully portrayed in the films Of Gods and Men. Their witness has inspired me since I first read their story in John W. Kiser’s The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love, and Terror in Algeria.

Especially poignant is the last testimony of the prior, Christian de Chergé which he wrote several years before his death. The full text can be found in several languages here. In the last sentences he addressed his future killers:

And also you, my last-minute friend, who will not have known what you were doing:
Yes, I want this THANK YOU and this GOODBYE to be a “GOD-BLESS” for you, too, because in God’s face I see yours.
May we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.
Amen! In sh’ Allah!”

His words of love for those who killed him are an inspiration in a time when we demonize our opponents and enemies.

These martyrs – and many others – can teach us about the love of God who does not leave us orphans and which calls us to care for the migrant, to refuse to kill, and to love our enemies.

Parasites, amoebas, and bacteriological infections

I’ve been feeling tired lately, but I attributed it to the work and the hot weather. I felt that my face was hot, but I attributed this to being out in the sun. I had diarrhea on Friday morning, but I attributed that to something I had eaten.

But Friday afternoon I felt totally exhausted and laid down for a few hours. I missed a call from a friend, one of the Dubuque Franciscan sisters here and mentioned that I wasn’t feeling well. She handed the phone to another sister who is a nurse. After listening to my symptoms she wondered if I had parasites or amoebas. She gave me a few ideas on how to get comfortable (including sleeping with an ice pack (or, in my case, a frozen towel) on my stomach.

After a few diarrhea episodes during the night, I went to a clinic in Dulce Nombre this morning and had blood and fecal tests. It ends up that I have parasites, amoebas, AND bacteriological infections. So life goes. They gave me two antibiotics intravenously in saline solution, together with an anti-spasmodic. After examining the tests, they gave me three medicines to take. I hope this gets over soon.


But this morning as I awoke, late and after almost 12 hours in bed, I sat up and had deep feeling of peace. Instead of being angry or upset, there was peace – a real gift. Now I don’t know how long this peace will last, but I want to give thanks to God. In the middle of discomfort, God graced me with peace.

The blood of the poor

One way to keep poor is not to accept money
which is the result of defrauding the poor.
Dorothy Day, May, 1952

Saint Ignatius of Laconi, Sardinia, was a Capuchin brother who died on May 11, 1781, noted most of all for his begging. While begging he not only gave people a chance to share but he also brought about reconciliation between peoples and converted sinners.

A notorious merchant in town, Franchino, was enraged that Brother Ignatius never stopped at his door to beg alms, because the merchant had built his fortune by defrauding the poor.

Franchino complained to the guardian of the Capuchins who ordered Brother Ignatius to stop and beg from the merchant. Brother Ignatius agreed but said, “Very well. If you wish it, Father, I will go, but I would not have the Capuchins dine on the blood of the poor.”

What happened next is extraordinary – but true to the reality of the situation.

As Dorothy Day wrote:

“But hardly had Ignatius left the house with his sack on his shoulder when drops of blood began oozing through the sack. They trickled down on Franchino’s doorstep and ran down through the street to the monastery. Everywhere Ignatius went, a trickle of blood followed him. When he arrived at the friary, he laid the sack at the Father Guardian’s feet.  “What is this?” gasped the Guardian. “This,” St. Ignatius said, “is the blood of the poor.”

The quote from Dorothy Day is found in Robert Ellsberg’s By Little and By Little: The Selected Writings of Dorothy Day, pages 108-109.

A martyr’s tribute to another martyr

Before the current wave of martyrs in the Middle East, most recently those killed in Egypt on Palm Sunday, there were a good number of martyrs in Algeria in the 1990s.

The most famous of these are the Trappists of Tibhirine who were kidnapped on March 27, 1996, and then killed. John Kiser wrote The Monks of Tibhirine; Faith, Love, and Terror in Algeria. The moving film Of Gods and Men is one of the most moving films I have ever see.

Their prior, Fr. Christian de Chergé, OCSO, wrote an incredible testament, available here in English and French.

But there were many others.

On May 8, 1994, two years before his martyrdom, Fr. Henri-Barthelemy Verges, Marist brother, and Sister Paule-Hélène Saint Raymund, Little Sister of the Assumption, were killed in Algiers, Algeria.

On July 5, 1994, Père Christian wrote this about Père Henri-Barthelemy:

“I was personally very close to Henri. His death seemed to be so natural, just part of a long life entirely given to the small, ordinary duties. He seemed to me to belong to the category that I call ‘martyrs of hope,’ those who are never spoken of because all their blood is poured out in patient endurance of day-to day life. I understand ‘monastic martyrdom’ in the same sense. It is this instinct that leads us not to change anything here at present, except for an ongoing effort at conversion. But there again, no change!”

Martyrdom is not always something extraordinary. It is often the closure on a life given over in love to the tasks of daily life.

This reminded me of what Blessed Monseñor Oscar Romero wrote in his retreat notebook, in March 1980, shortly before his martyrdom,

“My disposition should be to give my life for God, however it should end. The grace of God will enable us to live through the unknown circumstances. He aided the martyrs and, if it should be necessary that I die as they did, I will feel him very close to me at the moment of breathing my last breath. But more important than the moment of death is to give him all my life and live for him and for my own mission.”

What is important is the daily martyrdom, the giving over oneself to God and others. This is the witness – the martirio – of those who seek to follow the Cross of Christ to the Resurrection – a life of continual conversion

Stopped in the tracks

They stood still, a picture of gloom.
Luke 24:17

When Jesus approached the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, they were stopped in their tracks and, as I translate the Greek, looked sullen.

I remember one time I was stopped in my tracks. In 1979 I spent three weeks working with a Irish Fellowship of Reconciliation playscheme for Catholic and Protestant kids in Lurgan, Northern Ireland.

I arrive in Northern Ireland by train and had to wait in Portadown for the train to Belfast. As I went through the exit, someone pointed out a coffee shop to me a block from the station. As I walked I saw several British soldiers with machine guns.


I stopped in my tracks – frozen.


I don’t know how long I stood there but the guy who had told me about the coffee shop passed by and pointed me in the right direction.

As I passed the solder with the machine gun, he quietly greeting me with a “Good morning.”

I think that, if that one person had not stopped and showed me the coffee shop, I would still be there even today.

The human touch. The word to a person who is stuck, stopped in mid-course. These can be redeeming moments.

Christ does not come to these disciples to castigate them, to preach to them, but to be with them and open their eyes to the depths of the reality around them.

When we stand beside someone, when we listen and let the person share fears, hopes, and joys, we are following the example of a God who listens, who shares our lives. We are letting God break bread with us.

And then we can move on – sustained with the breaking of bread – and return to the places of fears and hopes.


Come to the light

Whoever loves the truth comes to the light.
John 3: 21

“Years of terror and death have reduced the majority of Guatemalans to fear and silence.
Truth is the primary word that makes it possible for us to break this cycle of death and violence and to open ourselves to a future of hope and light for all.”
Monseñor Juan Gerardi  (1922-1998)

Juan_gerardiNineteen years ago today, April 26, 1998, Bishop Juan Gerardi was killed in Guatemala City. A few days before he had released the TEMHI report, the report of the archdiocesan human rights office on the recovery of historical memory in Guatemala, which laid bare the truth about the violence that had ravaged Guatemala for decades.

The report found that about 90 percent of the 200,000 deaths and disappearances were done by the Guatemalan military. This truth was too much for some who tried to hide this by killing the messenger.

Bishop Gerardi’s memory lives on – and, I pray, inspires many to speak the truth and recall the memory of those who have died in defense of life.

In a world where the powers that be bring death to the poor and others, speaking the truth is not valued. Some speak about “fake facts,” but how many seek the real truth?

The early followers of Jesus were put into jail for speaking the truth of his  death and resurrection. But they were released, not by the authorities of the temple or the other powers that controlled life in their day. In only one of a few jail breaks recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, the angle of the Lord released them and, instead of going home and hiding, they went to the heart of the temple and preached.

How do I let the truth come to light in the way I live? How do I speak up, in the midst of violence, injustice, racism, and all that keeps people from living as children of God? How do I respond to the truth of God which is the truth of a God who so loves the world that He comes in person (John 3: 16)?

The liberating power of washing feet and sharing the Body

Notes for a Holy Thursday homily, in Honduras, translated and edited from Spanish

Exodus 12: 1-8, 11-14
1 Corinthians 11: 23-26
John 12: 1-15

Today, in the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper, only the second reading speaks of the Eucharist. We begin with the retelling of the Paschal Meal.

Jews celebrate, even today, the Passover, the Exodus from the slavery of Egypt, with a sacramental meal. It is not a drama – for them, the Meal is a way of living again the liberation from the Egypt. They recall the mercy of God who heard the cries of the people and intervened to rescue them. The Passover Meal is a way to celebrate the liberating presence of God.

The Last Supper of Lord Jesus was probably a Passover Meal. With his disciples, Jesus celebrated the liberation of the people of Israel from Egypt in the midst of the occupation of Israel by the troops of the Roman Empire. The Passover was a very tense time in the days of Jesus. Recalling their liberation from the Pharaoh, many Jews of his time awaited their liberation from the foreign Roman troops. Some wished to throw them out violently.

Jesus came to liberate his People – but not by killing others but by handing over his life for all. In the Last Supper he gave his disciples his body and blood, under the forms of bread and wine, to show his commitment, his handing over of his life even to death, a death that he would suffer in less than twenty hours. The liberation from slavery, on God’s part, is an act of handing oneself over on behalf of others.

DSC01489But, after the Supper, Jesus gave us an example of his style of liberation. He washes the feet of his disciples.

This too was not theater. It was an act of service, of making himself nothing, of putting himself in the midst of the servants and slaves. In the days of Jesus, only the slaves would wash others’ feet – and those feet were assuredly dirty, from walking on dirt roads and in streets full of dung and refuse.

When we lower ourselves before another person, kneeling at their feet, we recognize that we are not those who are the big guys, the powerful, those who matter. We are the lesser ones, the lesser brothers (and sisters) as Saint Francis of Assisi called his friars. We put the needs of others before our own. We recognize that God wishes a community where there is the connection of love, of tenderness, of mutual support.

Why. Because we have a God who loves us, who has lowered himself, and has handed himself over, even to death, for us.

And doing the same as He does, we can experience true liberation.