An OKIE martyr

“A nice compliment was given to me recently when a supposed leader in the Church and town was complaining that ‘Father is defending the people.’
He wants me deported for my sin.
“This is one of the reasons I have for staying in the face of physical harm.
The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger.
Pray for us that we may be a sign of the love of Christ for our people,
that our presence among them will fortify them
to endure these sufferings in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom.”
Father Stanley Rother
1980 Christmas Letter

Thirty-five years ago, on July 28, 1981, a priest from Oklahoma, Father Stanley Rother, was killed in the rectory of the church of Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala. María Ruíz Scaperlanda has written a beautiful book on his life, The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run.

He, like another US missionary whom I knew, Maryknoll Father Ron Hennessey, took accompanying the poor as central to his missionary work. Father Ron lived and served many years in Guatemala and El Salvador, living in situations of war and injustice, and quietly making known the sufferings of his people. Fr. Ron died on a visit back to his native Iowa.

Father Stan, Apl’as to the indigenous members of his parish, had a shorter life as a missionary as he was killed one evening, a few days after the town’s feast of Saint James. He knew that “To h the hand of an Indian is a political act.”

But Father Stan is not the only martyr from this beautiful town on Lago Atitlán. Note two plaques in the church in Santiago Atitlán – here and here.

On January 3, 1981, Diego Quic Apuchan, Mayan Indian catechist, was disappeared and killed, Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala, 1981. As he had noted to Fr. Stan:

“I have never stolen, have never hurt anyone, have never eaten someone else’s food. Why, then, do they want to hurt me and kill me?

On April 21, 1989, Juan Sisay, painter, president of Catholic Action, martyred in his home in Santiago Atitlán.

On December 2, 1990, Thirteen campesinos killed in Santiago Atitlán massacre, as the army fired on several thousand unarmed peaceful Tzutujil Mayas. Their story is told here.

It is important to remember Father Stan and to recall his witness. But we are also called on to recall the many others killed because of their faith and their commitment to the poor – in his parish, in Guatemala, in El Salvador, in Honduras, and even now in other parts of the world.

And the challenge for us? How to be witnesses in our daily lives in such a way that if we are facing martyrdom we may face it with joy and love and forgiveness.

 

Journalist martyr Blessed Titus

Fr. Titus Bransdma was a Dutch Carmelite priest who was killed by the Nazis at Dachau by lethal injection on July 26, 1942.

A seminary professor, expert on mysticism, and advisor to Dutch Catholic journalists, he did not flinch from speaking out against the evils of Nazism.

In 1935, while Holland was still free, he wrote and went on a lecture tour in opposition to marriage laws that restricted the rights of Jews.

After Holland was invaded by Germany in 1940, he advised the Catholic newspapers that they should refuse to publish Nazi propaganda and advertising.

After spending several months in various prisons, where he wrote a biography of St. Teresa of Avila, he was sent to Dachau. There his health failed and he was sent to the hospital, not a place of healing but of horrid medical experimentation. There he was killed.

What strikes me is his willingness to speak out boldly, even though he knew that it would cost his life.

Some would say he was imprudent. He should have been less outspoken and tried to oppose the Nazis more diplomatically, some might way.

But prudence is not cowardly refusal to speak up in the face of risks. The virtue of prudence is the capacity to know what should be done and then do it, not counting the personal costs.

False prudence lets injustice and violence go on without speaking out. Real prudence means being a witness to the truth, “speaking truth to power,” using the pointed Quaker as the Quakers say.

Blessed Titus Brandsma was a martyr, a witness. May he inspire us – and many in the Church – to witness to the truth in the face of attacks on the poor, the weak, the marginalized.

 

 

Make us great – servants and slaves

Whoever wishes to be great among you
must be your servant.
Matthew 20:26

In today’s Gospel for the feast of St. James, we hear the mother of James and John asking Jesus to give them seats of honor. Jesus explains what this would mean to her sons but the other apostles are a bit taken aback and complain.

In response, Jesus tells them:

but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20: 26-28)

I have heard many calling to “make America [really just the US] great again,” but is it the greatness of Jesus? Or is it the temptation to greatness that Jesus experienced in the desert – being acclaimed by all and having power over all? (Matthew 4: 1-11)

Many years ago I was introduced to Martin Luther King’s “Drum Major Instinct” sermon which he preached in 1968 on one of the parallel texts of today’s Gospel. It gives us an idea of what Jesus means by greatness.

… Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.  That’s a new definition of greatness.
And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.

Greatness is not power; greatness is not having the seats of honor; greatness is not being looked up to; greatness is not being over and above others.

Greatness is service; greatness is sitting at the feet of the poor and ill, washing their feet; greatness is looking up into the eyes of those one is serving; greatness is loving, being with others, accompanying them.

The words Jesus uses in the passage cited above are significant for me as a newly ordained permanent deacon.

Whoever wishes to be great must be your servant, your deacon – διάκονος;
whoever wishes to be first must be your slave – δοῦλος.

This is who Jesus calls us to be and, pointedly, he noted that this is not the way of the rulers of this world, even those who claim the mantle of Christianity.

And so today I meditate on my calling to be servant – and God keeps giving me opportunities to be a servant.

As I was writing this blog, a neighbor came to the door and asked me to take communion to her sister who just came back from the hospital after a stroke. With great joy I have been given a little way to serve.


The full text of Martin Luther King’s “Drum Major Instinct Sermon” can be found here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Surrounded by saints

We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses…
Hebrews 12:1

I have since my youth been fascinated by the saints. I remember having these little books with a picture of a saint and a colored picture on the opposite page.

As I grew older I began reading more and more of the saints, running across some obscure saints who became very important for me, including Saint Benedict the Black and Saint Benedict Joseph Labré. Saint Francis of Assisi was one saint who began to enchant me from my grade school days and still moves me.

Later I began to encounter other holy men and women, only some of whom were canonized. The commitment to the poor and the spirituality of Monseñor Oscar Romero and Brother Charles de Foucauld challenged me and still sustain me.

And so, as I lay prostrate before the altar last Friday in the Mass of ordination, I felt myself surrounded by so many witnesses – saints in heaven and saints around me. I felt myself sustained and challenged by them.

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The Litany has a healthy number of saints but in special events, such as ordinations, the Church encourages us to add special saints.

I added these:

  • Saint Raphael the Archangel, who guided Tobias on his journey, and was the patron of the church where I was baptized as well as the Archdioceses of Dubuque where I served for 24 years.
  • Saint Thomas Aquinas, the patron of the church and student center in Ames, Iowa, where I served and which is the sister parish of the parish of Dulce Nombre de María.
  • Saint Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, who run two universities where I studied: the University of Scranton and Boston College.
  • Saint Bonaventure, a great Franciscan leader and writer, whose feast was that day.
  • Saint Scholastica, whose brother Benedict is already in the litany, but whom I added to recall the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration who made my dalmatic.
  • Saint Clare, the founder of the women Franciscans, who should be joined with Saint Francis in the litany, recalling the Franciscan Sisters who sustain me here.
  • Blessed Oscar Romero was already added to the litany but I added Blessed Charles de Foucauld immediately after him.

As I lay on the ground before the altar, I found myself feeling the presence of all these great witnesses. But then Romero was called upon to pray for us, followed by Charles de Foucauld.

I had dedicated my ordination to Romero when I visited his tomb a few weeks ago.

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His deep faith, profound spirituality, and courageous accompaniment of the poor have inspired me for years.

At the ordination of a transitional deacon, Jorge Benavides, on August 15, 1977, he said:

Beloved deacon, we are going to impose our hands on you and we are going to see in you an image of the Church that serves, the deacon. Would that you understand that all your theology, all your studies, the beauty of your vocation mean brining to the world the face of that Church which serves, loves, and hopes.

Charles de Foucauld, the little brother who lived among the poor in Algeria and was killed there, inspired me by his commitment to live with and for the poor – being there with them. My white diaconal bears the image of the cross and the heart that he wore on his simple white habit.

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As Monseñor Romero and Brother Charles de Foucauld were asked to pray for us, my body was rocked with deep sobs – not of sorrow but of an experience I cannot define. It was partly joy, but as I look back it might have been a feeling of the mercy of God and the challenge of these holy men to live as a servant of God and the poor.

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Yesterday I came upon this quote of Brother Charles, which expresses that challenge so beautifully:

Jesus came to Nazareth, the place of the hidden life, of the ordinary life, of family life, of prayer, work, obscurity, silent virtues, practiced with no witnesses other than God, his friends and neighbors. Nazareth, the place where most people lead their lives. We must infinitely respect the least of our brothers… let us mingle with them. Let us be one of them to the extent that God wishes… and treat them fraternally in order to have the honor and joy of being accepted by them.

I pray that I may live my calling as a deacon, in the image of Christ the Servant, might be lived as Romero and Foucauld did – giving one’s life very day with the poor.

 


The quote from Charles de Foucauld is taken from Charles de Foucauld: Writings Selected by Robert Ellbserg, p. 28.

Know that you are loved – part 2

Earlier this month I wrote a blog post on the impact that this simple phrase had on me when Sister Peggy hugged me as I left Suchitoto: “Know that you are loved.”

This morning I came on these words of Little Brother of the Gospel Arturo Paoli, who died a year ago today:

Christians are persons who discover that they are loved, and find that the best response they can give, the only way to say “thanks” for the love they receive is the response of loving. The very need to love leads them not to refuse any proposal, any path that seems to them to be a good one for building communion….
…if you really love, if you been captured by the love of Christ, you throw yourself into the battle for communion, but you’re on the lookout not to lose the essential thing: love for human beings.

May I throw myself into “the battle for communion,” for solidarity and unity in the Body of Christ and in the world – so needed here in Honduras and in my native country, the US. But may I never forget the truly essential, “love for human beings,” not as a group but as real people with lives and names and the dignity as children of God.

 

Searching for the real Martha and Mary

Next Sunday I will be sharing my first homily as a deacon. As I meditated on the scriptures, I found myself with an alternative reading of the story of Mary and Martha (Luke 10: 38-42). I offer this as a draft – in English – and welcome any suggestions.

The story of Mary and Martha is often interpreted as showing the superiority of the contemplative life over the active life. But I wonder if there is another way to interpret this story.

A disciple is one who sits at the feet of the master, listening and learning. But in the time of Jesus a woman disciple would have been unheard of.

So in the Gospel we find Mary seated at the feet of Jesus, the stance of a disciple.

Her sister Martha was involved in providing hospitality for Jesus – probably working in the kitchen, preoccupied, as Jesus notes, with many things.

 

Was she actually a bit upset because Mary was going beyond the gender roles of her time? I don’t know. But I suggest that many of those who heard or read Luke’s Gospel might have been a little shocked to see Mary as a disciple, not attending to the many things of the household.

 

Jesus calls all of us to be disciples – women and men, poor and rich, illiterate and well-educated, laity and clergy. Discipleship is a relation with Jesus and has nothing to do with our status. It is a call to relationship with Jesus.

 

When Jesus is telling Martha that Mary has chosen the better part, I think he is saying that discipleship is the most important part of a relationship with Him. He calls us to be present with Him, not merely doing things for Him.

 

It’s not that hospitality and providing for guests is wrong or less worthy. Consider the first reading where Abraham welcomes the three visitors into his home and provides them with a meal. He gets his wife and his servants to prepare a good meal and even gets them curds and milk. He then “waits on them.”

 

This is my first homily as a deacon. Proclaiming the Gospel and preaching are essential parts of the diaconal ministry. But there is more.

 

The deacon is not ordained to the priesthood, but to service of the community and especially the poor.

 

The deacon is, in some ways, like Martha, trying to do all that needs to be done for Jesus, especially in the person of the sick and the poor. But unless the deacon is also listening to the Lord and sits at the feet of the Lord as a disciple, all he is doing is “good work.” He is not being the icon of Christ the Servant.

 

The Word, the altar, and the poor are all essential for my ministry and the ministry of all the People of God.

So today let us sit at the feet of the Lord, listening to Him speaking through the Scriptures. Let us stand around the table of the Lord, the Eucharist, and receive Him as our food. And let us open our hearts and our homes to the poor and go out to the sick and those in need, nourished by Word and Eucharist, being for them signs of Christ who became a servant for us.

A word of warning

Obviously I am not celebrating US Independence Day here in Honduras. Here we celebrate independence from Spain on September 15.

But these words of Thomas Merton, written more than 50 years ago, ring true and provide food for a careful examination of ourselves as persons, as peoples, as nations.

“It seems to me that there are very dangerous ambiguities about our democracy in its actual present condition. I wonder to what extent our ideals are now a front for organized selfishness and systematic irresponsibility. If our affluent society ever breaks down and the facade is taken away, what are we going to have left?”