From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Guatemala Dateline: That day, ‘Jim showed me what a priest is’

by Father David Baronti, for the Inland Register

(From the May 23, 2002 edition of the Inland Register)

I´d bet that if we were killed like Stan (Rother) they´d want to make a big deal out of it – like we were some kind of saints or something. – Father Jim McGreevy


If one person’s repressed sentiments, like angry lava, can belch forth in times of stress from the fissures in the civilizing mantle that would otherwise keep them down, another’s will unexpectedly emerge from the nooks and crannies of softer earth, and produce flowers that decorate the ground.

The words that introduce this article were produced in such an epoch of tension – when people´s psyches were rent, and they were saying things and thinking things that they had never said nor thought before.

Two hundred thousand Mayas were being killed – methodically; tortured to death, most of them – at the time the late Father McGreevy uttered them in the first part of the 1980s.

It was a time when rectors of the Guatemala national university were abducted as routinely as they were installed; when its valedictorian, having given his speech before thousands, was gunned down; when more student doctors making their rural “internships” in certain predominately Maya areas wound up in the morgue than with their titles (they had seen too much to be around).

One of the most unremarked-upon aspects of the Maya holocaust is that of the 200,000, only a few were taken unawares. They were poor, and, confronted by danger, either had nowhere to go, or, having found a sponsor, were returned home from a country whose president maintained that his Guatemala counterpart was getting a “bad rap” – a bum deal. The eight tall fellows 3,000 miles away who occupied the two Jeep Cherokees with the P-79XXX license plates, could – as a consequence – pull up at the 100 block of a town on Monday, and then (as methodically as a prison guard) perpetrate the same carnage on the 200 block on Tuesday, and again on Wednesday, knowing that the people would still be there, waiting, as surely as a prisoner will be waiting for his death row guard, the former as immobilized by their poverty as the latter by his cell´s steel bars.

One frames other’s experiences in the light of one’s own, and perhaps this is why I think that few of the 200,000 feared death itself so much as its moment, not the sea so much as the bar. It is one of the most beautiful things about this culture – that the people always leave a harbor of reassuring family and friends when they go, that the dying never look up to a ceiling of some strange, synthetic material when they take that voyage alone, but rather into the familiarity of the eyes of dozens of neighbors. In an unbroken transition, they are ushered into the community of the saints by the same community into which they was ushered when they were born.

This aspect of the Ixtahuacán Maya, this civilizing mark that they begín to inculcate from childhood onward – viz., that you always seek a companion, whether you are going to buy something in the market, or are carrying your machete with you to work – is probably breaking down now, after maybe millenia of holding forth. It is attested to in the K’iche’ document the Popol Wuj, for example, when the great God, in conference with others, created not one man but four; or, for example, when the 400 youth kill the giant Sipacna when he dared to accomplish alone what they were doing together; or the action of the hero twins Hunapu and Ixbalanque who, in contrast to the corresponding Mexican hero Quetzal-cuatl, created the K’iche’ civilization together. It was attested to by a Sololá bishop who once deplored the lack of economy of these people who spend four times as much bus fare as they need to spend, when one could get his signature.

What the bishop said is true. But how terrifying must it be for a people who never go anywhere alone to have crossed that bar alone, and not into the calm of a smiling, gradually, opening silver, but into the shoals of a narrowing tidal river, on a day when Charon’s small skiff moved not to sea to the gentle words of family and neighbors, but rather to the vortex of a malestrom with opaque, oil-slick eyes at the center.

That was the backdrop for which the words that begín this page occur. That was also the backdrop (to begin our movement back to Jim) of darkness that framed the light of the Church.

For it was a time of beauty as well as horror. It was a time when Catholics in an aldea near the central town of Sta. Cruz defied a military order to dissove the position of town catechist, and elected to have the man stay on teaching, and then (after he was murdered) to have his replacement go on teaching, and then (after he, too, was murdered) still another.

It was a time when one of the catechists murdered asked the judiciales for time to say the rosary with his family, before they marched him into the dark.

It was a time when the army (it was always the army) ordered the townspeople to kill the catechists in a community near Uspantan, or else be themselves murdered upon the army’s return – a martyrdom that they (the entire Catholic community) insisted on accepting, and would have in fact endured had not the catechists, handing them their machetes, insisted more.

It was a time when our own people of Nahualá banded together after the director of the parish school, Lorenzo Sac Cuc, was kidnapped the same week that a neighbor disappeared. Rather than see their companions killed one by one, the townsmen decided it were better to die together. With nothing more lethal in their hands than the machetes they carry everywhere, they walked the streets from dusk to dawn, coalescing around every invading squadron of machine-gun toting, off-duty soldiers, and locking them up in the town jail, and returning them the next day to the officers who dispatched them the night before.

There were two peaks to this heroism worthy of special honor: the first event occurred several months after these patrols began, when the army came into town full-force, and demanded that the patrols be disbanded (given that their protection was there): the people refused, and point-blank challenged the Colonel that that would be inviting wholesale slaughter.

The second event occured over two years afterwards: the last death squad ever to enter Nahualá (guided by a masked Nahualá collaborator) got as far as the designated victim’s door before releasing a barrage of shots (they killed seven) into the assembling civil patrollers.

It was also – perhaps more than anything else – a time when I learned reverence for the men whose priesthood I share. The modern priest faces a different dangers today vis-a-vis his missionary forbearers. Whereas the latter were sent out unto an unknown people, at whose hands they were sometimes martyred, the former, entering into a land where some of his own countrymen are able to act with an abandon unavailable elsewhere, must sometimes protect the same indigenous people from the deprevations of his own brothers. Such was the case in Brazil, for example, when an American priest, Edgar Smith, was killed in a car “accident” shortly afer exposing the genocide committed against the Cintas Largas Amazon dwellers.

His exposé led to another exposé, and another, until everyone except those who depend on the Western press for their information gasped in concert at the unfolding horror: While individuals such as the Ludwigs and the Rockefellers and companies such as Deltec and Swiss Armour and a score of oil concerns were gobbling away at the periferies of the forest, the Indians in the way were being killed by smallpox-infected clothes and aresenic-laced candies distributed by other Westerners. Perhaps 75 percent of the total forest population died off in just 10 years.

Few modern missionaries are aware of such occurences as they begín their work – certainly none of the six priests (Fathers Ron Burke of San Francisco, Jim Hazelton of Montana, Dave Vavaseur of Louisiana, Stan, myself, and Jim) who used to meet in a coastal town for prayer in my first years here.

But for as apolitical as we were, none of us escaped the gaze of the killers. It was enough to have been associated with the murdered.

The priests that I knew were basically conservative pepole who never would have questioned the actions of their institutions or government but that the latter came into conflict with the only thing they valued more: their devotion to the people they served.

The other thing that I learned was far more significant, however.

Jim´s remark that I quoted to begin this piece left me profoundly moved when I heard it. I had just been talking to Bishop Melotto, who caught me in an uncomfortable moment of self-revelation. What, I asked him, will you do if I am killed?

His reply – “celebrate a funeral Mass – what else?” was deliberately meant to provoke.

I understood then that I, Tom-Sawyer-like, wanted to witness the monument that they would make.

Bishop Melotto knew that, too.

Jim showed me what a priest is that day.

His remark was so totally different.

(Father McGreevy died April 18 in Spokane. He had served in the Guatemala missions twice, for a total of more than nine years. Father Baronti, a priest of the Spokane Diocese, has been a missioner in Guatemala for nearly three decades.)

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