Tales of poverty, faith and bloodshed

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In December of 2016, Pope Francis promulgated a statement confirming that Father Stanley Francis Rother had been killed “in hatred of the faith” (“in odium fidei”) while serving as a missionary in Guatemala. The Oklahoma native is thus beatified, which means the church pronounces with confidence its belief that he is among those welcomed into Paradise and can now intercede for those of us still on our earthly pilgrimage in life.

After graduating from Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, Father Rother willingly accepted a charge to live amongst the poor indigenous Tz’utujil peoples in Central America. He taught, prayed and dwelt with his flock, establishing a small medical center, dubbed the “hospitalito” to aid in their physical as well as spiritual well-being. Despite knowing that death squads sought to do him harm because of his advocacy for the rights of the impoverished men and women in the country, he refused to return to the United States and to abandon those to whom he ministered.  He was eventually murdered there, being executed by two bullets to the brain on July 28, 1981, at the age of 46.

He was one of at least 10 priests murdered in Guatemala that year.

In roughly the same period, four missionary women from the United States, Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan, were raped and killed in the neighboring country of El Salvador, where they had decided to try to live out the Gospel with people who sought their help. Donovan’s description of why she would not leave those Latin American peoples who she came to love even in the face of great personal peril remains a haunting reminder to all of us of glimpses of beauty found in places littered with unimaginable loss and struggle: “El Salvador is such a beautiful country. Where else would you find roses in December?” she asked rhetorically.

From Rutilio Grande to Oscar Romero to Ignacio Ellacuria to Segundo Montes to Elba and Celina Ramos, the list of inspiring figures that shed their blood in solidarity with the people of the Northern Triangle of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras is seemingly endless. And if someone were to think that all that death and destruction served a higher purpose to bring about peace and prosperity for those with whom they intentionally chose to cast their lots, modern day news coverage will rapidly and violently dissuade him or her of such a misconception.

The United States has a rather atypical history regarding religious attitudes, as it is, along with Singapore and the oil-rich Persian Gulf nations, one of the few places on earth with both high income rates and strong religious practices imbedded in its culture.  The vast majority of the world’s most religiously active countries are in fact made up of poor and desperate people.  Many demographers have found that per-capita income and the nexus of religiosity and collective cohesion are inversely proportional. To put it simply, poor countries almost always pray more, and highlight familial connections over individual successes more than wealthier ones do. That is not to fetishize or idealize poverty in any way, which is a degrading attack on human dignity from which people can rightly be expected to flee. But it belies the attitude that Central Americans are somehow not members of our Christian family and the Body of Christ, or that North Americans ought to be indifferent to their suffering because they represent things from which we wish to turn our faces.

In the Good Samaritan parable, the priest and the Levite have important business affairs and ritual purity concerns that give them perfectly good excuses for bypassing the waylaid victim on the road to Jerusalem. The Egyptians obviously felt their bustling cosmopolitan culture legitimized their (mis)use of Hebrew laborers, and that Moses was a problematic rabble-rouser. The Bethlehem innkeeper likely had a very rational internal argument as to why he’d prefer to focus on the people paying their fair share for accommodations over the indigent old man trying to help a pregnant woman look for a place to give birth. But our faith, without much ambiguity, teaches us that there are more to these stories than meets the eye. “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty.” 

Father Rother and his companions staked their very lives upon a belief in the reality that solidarity, and not selfishness, are signs that the Kingdom of God is at hand.

Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D. teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.