Monthly Archives: April 2011

Martyrs of Rwanda and Burundi

In the 1990s Rwanda and Burundi experienced massive genocidal attacks, as Hutu and Tutsi fought and killed each other. Common people and even priests and other leaders joined those seeking to kill member of other tribes. The causes are rooted in the history of colonialism, but that’s another story.

But in the midst of the conflcits there stand a number of witnesses who protected people, no matter what tribal group they belonged to, or who refused to divide themselves into tribal groupings. The movie, Hotel Rwanda, is a notable example.

But there were many others. On April 30, 1997, seminarians in the minor seminary at Butu, of the diocese of Buriri, Burundi, were accosted by a group of armed men. They were told to divide themselves into separate Hutu and Tutsi groups. They refused and were martyred for their witness. As they were dying they were heard to pray,  in the words of Jesus, “Father, forgive them, doer they do not know what they are doing.”

These young men had the courage to live the unity of humanity and the unity of the church – and die upholding that belief.

A similar story, with a different outcome is told by Rwanda Father Modeste Mungwarareba:

“I know young people from the ‘Ingoro y’urukundo’ Community, a charismatic community in Kibirizi, near Butare. Ordered by the militia to separate into two groups, Hutus and Tutsis, the young people (all under 25) refused. Holding hands, they formed a tight circle to signify that they were members of one body: neither Jew nor Greek, Hutu or Tutsi. Faced with this firm witness of unity, the soldiers left in a state of confusion . . . . There were many such heroic acts by unknown people, . . . To build this future, Rwanda must publicize and praise these examples of goodness and compassion. Thanks to them, wounded souls will again believe in humanity.”

The refusal to kill, the refusal to divide into groups and annihilate the other – these are true acts of Christian love.

Iowa Missionary in Central America

RonHennessey001On April 29, 1999, Father Ron Hennessey, MM, Maryknoll missionary to Guatemala and El Salvador died in Iowa, visiting family. He was 69 years old.

I met Father Ron several times. He came across as the Iowa farmer he had been, tall and lanky, simple and kind, devout and dedicated. He had served in the military in Korea. Then he joined Maryknoll, the Foreign Mission society of the US. He was to spend most of the rest of his life in Guatemala and El Salvador.

Although he came across at first glance as naïve, he was one of the most astute persons I’ve met. He had to be.

He lived in Guatemala among the indigenous in the times of the genocidal government attacks on them and the destruction of thousands of villages. He lived in El Salvador in the late 1980s, in the Zacamil parish, in a highly conflictive suburb of San Salvador, where many parishioners were sympathizers or members of one the FMLN guerrilla forces.

He served several times in leadership roles in Maryknoll in the region. He thus got to know many people, including Archbishop Romero.

In 1987 when I spent two months in a parish in San Salvador, I visited him several times, welcomed warmly each time. He talked openly about the situation and I could see his great love of the people, his critical approach to the situation – not only the crimes of the Salvadoran government and military – but also the opposition. But it was clear where his heart was – with the poor, with the people he ministered to, with the victims of repression and violence.

He was one of a kind. He lived and risked his life to live the Gospel with the poor of Central America. He was one of the many who have served the poor here – people from Central America and missionaries from abroad. They lived not for themselves, but for the Reign of God. They have been an inspiration for my service here.

There is a book written by Thomas Melville on Ron, Through a Glass Darkly: The U.S. Holocaust in Central America. It’s a huge book but provides a sympathetic portrait of this great man. 

Two reviews of the book which give a sense of what his life was can be found here and here.

We need more women and men like Ron.

Supposed Christians

The French philosopher, Jacques Maritain, a friend of Thomas Merton, died on April 28, 1993. Here is a quote on supposed Christians that Merton cited in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:

“They keep in their minds the settings of religion for the sake of appearances or outward show. . . but they deny the Gospel and despise the poor, pass through the tragedy of their time only with resentment against anything that endangers their interests and fear for their own prestige and possessions, contemplate without flinching every kind of injustice if it does not threaten their own way of life. Only concerned with  power and success, they are either anxious to have means of external coercion enforce what they term the ‘moral order’ or else they turn with the wind and are ready to comply with any requirement of the so-called historical necessity. They await the deceivers. They are famished for deception because first they themselves are trying to deceive God.”

Witness of Death in Guatemala

In the last 50 years there have been innumerable killings in Latin America of bishops, priests, sisters, and lay men and women who have committed their lives to live the Gospel with and for the poor.  Though for many centuries, except for a few bright lights like the Dominican friar and bishop Bartolomé de las Casas, the church had often been aligned with the status quo. But in the light of the Second Vatican Council and the Latin American bishops’ conferences, many raised their voices, hoping that the sufferings of the poor would be heard.

One voice was Bishop Juan Gerardi, who was killed on April 26, 1998. He had been the bishop of the department of Quiché, Guatemala, in the midst of such a horrendous persecution of the Church that he left and pulled out all the priests. Later, as auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of Guatemala City, he was the founder and director of the Archdiocesan Human Rights Office and was central to the work of documenting the human rights abuses in the Recovery of Historical Memory Project (REMHI). The night of April 24, 1998, he presented the report with these prophetic words:

 We want to contribute to the building of a country different than the one we have now.  For that reason we are recovering the memory of our people.  This path has been and continues to be full of risks, but the construction of the Reign of God has risks and can only be built by those that have the strength to confront those risks.


Addendum: Mike has a good blog entry on Monseñor Gerardi here, with a trailer from a movie on the bishop.

With fear and great joy

The women who went to the tomb early that first Easter morning, saw the empty tomb and heard the message of the angel. They ran to tell the disciples, “with fear and great joy.” Their hearts seemed to embrace two rather distinct emotions – “fear” at the unforeseen and the mystery of the Risen Lord and “great joy” in the same mysterious happening.

On the way Jesus comes out to meet them; they don’t run into them. He meets them. It’s the initiative of the Risen Lord to show himself to these faithful women. And his first word is “Rejoice,” reinforcing the joy that was in their hearts.

After they embraced his feet and adored him, he tells them, “Do not fear,” calling them to rid themselves of that fear that binds, that keeps us from acting.

Fear and joy are part of our lives. The Risen Lord Jesus reinforces the joy in our hearts and calls us to be free from fear.

We live in a world full of fear – of failure (financial and otherwise), or injury (physical or other), of death and insecurity, But the message of the risen Lord is to live without fear, going back to Galilee, to our daily lives, with the hope of new live, no longer bound by fear, living in His Love.

Practice Resurrection

This phrase comes from the last line of a poem of Wendell Berry, “The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” found here.

How do we live the resurrection? Is it just a happy smile or a kind deed – or is it working to live a new way, a way of solidarity and justice? Is it struggling to free the world of slavery and oppression of all kinds? Is it living a new society in the shell of the old? Is it all of these things?

And it is even more. It’s living in hope – with faith in a God who became human and suffered with us and has been raised up.

Death and evil do not have the final word. Jesus, the God of Life, is the final Word.

Rejoice and live the resurrection.


Thanks to Pax Christi USA’s e-mail for alerting me to Wendell Berry’s poem and its relevance for Easter.

The Great Sabbath

Holy Saturday is a day of rest, the Great Sabbath rest, between the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was a day when the faithful women waited until they could go to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus properly.  They waited. It is a day without a liturgical celebration (except for the Liturgy of the Hours). No Mass, no celebration with Communion – only waiting for the Easter Vigil.

Waiting in hope as the women did. Waiting – being present in grief.

Today is also the anniversary of the death of farm-worker organizer César Chávez in 1993. His challenge to the church is still pertinent:

 What do we want the Church to do? We don’t ask for more cathedrals. We don’t ask for bigger churches of fine gifts. We ask for its presence with us, beside us, as Christ among us. We ask the Church to sacrifice with the people for social change, for justice, and for love of brother. We don’t ask for words. We ask for deeds. We don’t ask for paternalism. We ask for servanthood.

The suffering Christ

When we say  “Christ has died” we express the truth that all human suffering  in all times and places has been suffered by the Son of God. There is no suffering — no guilt, shame, loneliness, hunger, oppression, or exploitation, no torture, imprisonment or murder, no violence or nuclear threat — that has not been suffered by God. There can be no human beings who are completely alone in their sufferings since God, in and through Jesus, has become Emmanuel, God with us. The Good News of the Gospel, therefore, is not that God came to take our suffering away, but that God wanted to become part of it.”

Henri Nouwen, “Christ of the Americas”

Living Eucharist – washing feet

Do this in memory of me.
1 Corinthians 11: 24

 These words from Jesus at the Last Supper call us to celebrate the Eucharist, sharing the bread of His Body and the wine of His blood. But many Catholics in the world do not have access to the Eucharist this Thursday and most Sundays during the year. That is the situation for most of the rural population here in Honduras.

A few communities have Communion ministers who will distribute the Eucharist consecrated at an earlier Mass. In the parish of Dulce Nombre where I help, they are only now training about twenty people for this ministry.

But this Holy Week I will be taking to the community of Vera Cruz (True Cross), Copán, and will be with them until Sunday morning.

We may not always be able to celebrate the Eucharist or receive Communion, But we can always live the Eucharist, the Body of Christ handed over for us and the Blood of Christ poured out for us, in our daily lives.  Every day we can relive the memory of a God who washes the feet of His disciples, feet cruddy from muddy or dusty roads, full of trash and rubbish.

Last year in Vera Cruz I washed the feet of 12 people, mostly kids. The towel showed that at least some of their feet ready needed to be washed.

May I be worthy this year to wash their feet again and then commit myself to serve them. For this act gives me a new perspective on life and Eucharist.

As Father Gary Smith, S.J., wrote in Radical Compassion,

 The truth of the heart of Christ is found in the washing of the feet. When I have washed feet, I have realized that it is only from below that I can really see what is above.

Rousing the weary

“a word to rouse the weary”
Isaiah 50: 4

 The third Suffering Servant Song present us with a servant who is scourged and slapped around – as we hear of Jesus in the Passion narratives. But the Servant is one called to comfort, to sustain, to rouse the weary. In the New American Bible translation:

The Lord God has given me a sell-trained tongue
that I might know how to speak to the weary
a word that will rouse them.

The one who suffers, is tortured, is the one who knows how to rouse us. By His sharing in the sufferings and tortures of the oppressors of the world, He gives the poor and suffering hope. He suffers with them. His death – and resurrection – opens up the world to hope.

This is what give meaning to our history and our lives. As Thomas Merton wrote, in A Vow of Conversation:

We have to see history as a book that is sealed and opened only by the Passion of Christ. But we prefer to read it from the viewpoint of the Beast. We look at history in terms of hubris and power — in terms of the beast and his values. Christ continues to suffer his passion in the poor, the defenseless, and his Passion destroys the Beast. Those who love power are destroyed together with what they love. Meanwhile, Christ is in agony until the end of time.