I don’t want to bore you, but enough have asked about my recent Retreat-Pilgrimage to Central America that I would like to give you an over-all impression of my trip.
The Retreat-Pilgrimage was conducted by four Maryknoll priests who each had spent decades working in Central America and so could speak firsthand about the situation they had lived. A deacon of the Archdiocese of New York, who works for Maryknoll in Mission Promotion, was also part of the team. Fourteen diocesan priests, three diocesan permanent deacons and myself were the retreatants. While in Guatemala City our accommodations were at the Maryknoll Regional Center and were very nice. For three nights we also stayed at the Maria Eugenia Retreat House in San Salvador, with a great view of the city, gardens that were spectacular, and barking dogs and crowing roosters that kept us awake most of the night. We also slept one night on mats on the floor at Santiago Atitlán, which really wasn’t too bad for one night. At least there we weren’t serenaded by dogs and chickens! We twice had armed guards accompany us over sections of road that were dangerous due to criminal activity, but we never had any violence or trouble on the entire trip.
We visited the chapel where Bishop Oscar Romero was gunned down while saying Mass. Each of us placed our hand on the altar where he was martyred, and the Sister there lead us in a very moving prayer. Interestingly, she removed her shoes before coming up on the sanctuary, as a sign of respect. We were not able to visit Romero’s gravesite in the Cathedral of San Salvador, as the Cathedral was occupied by protesters. We visited the site where the bodies of four North American Church women were discovered after they had been raped and murdered and had Mass there in a chapel built by the Cleveland, Ohio mission team. We saw the rose garden where the bodies of six slain Jesuits at the University of Central America, their housekeeper and her daughter were found. They had all been shot in the head, execution style. We visited the garage where Bishop Juan Gerardi was killed two days after presenting the Church’s findings on the years of murders and oppression in Guatemala. We visited the room in Santiago Atitlán where Fr. Stanley Rother – a priest of the Diocese of Tulsa, OK – was murdered. The bullet the assassins used to kill him was recovered, and it was a special military type of bullet made in the U.S. and probably paid for by our tax dollars. We visited the site of a massacre by the Guatemalan Army and heard the story from an actual eyewitness, a young man who was just a boy at the time. He was “lucky” enough to be hidden by fallen bodies and was able to escape. We also heard from an Indian woman whose husband, a catechist, was “disappeared.” She saved 11 children from two different families whose parents had been murdered by the military in front of the children. Somehow the kids escaped and the military were looking for them to eliminate all witnesses. With great bravery this lady bluffed her way through three military checkpoints, claiming all 11 were her own, to finally deliver them to safety. And we heard about the story of Fr. Bill Woods, a Maryknoll priest from Houston, TX, who earned the enmity of the Guatemalan military by helping campesinos acquire land in co-operatives and was shot down in his small plane.
Over and over we heard terrible stories of murders, massacres, rapes, torture and brutality. But we also heard of incredible courage and dedication of missionaries to people in need that were truly heroic. We always viewed the deaths of the missionaries not as defeats but as tremendous victories of love and the Holy Spirit.
The trip was powerful, challenging, informative, and it left me feeling very proud of the bravery and dedication of the church, and especially the missionaries, who have accompanied a persecuted and hurting people for many decades. It is a wonderful, if costly, testament to the Catholic Church in the work for healing and justice.