Fr. Carl Chudy, SX
Last November 2017, the U.S. moved forward with extraditing a former high-ranking El Salvador military official to Spain to face murder charges for allegedly plotting the killings of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter in 1989. Inocente Orlando Montano Morales failed in his final bid to avoid extradition when the U.S. Supreme Court announced, without explanation, that it had denied his request to halt his extradition. The decision allowed the State Department – which has had a warrant out for Montano since October stipulating he would be extradited to Spain unless the Supreme Court intervened – to move forward with the extradition. Five of the six slain priests, executed in San Salvador, were Spanish. (Pictured above)
The pastoral activity of the Church is increasingly undermined in Africa by a lack of security. From Cote D’Ivoire to Nigeria, to Congo Kinshasa, etc. priests are assassinated by armed gangs. Two priests and at least 19 faithful were killed in the parish of St Agnatius Ukpor-Mbalom in the village of Mbalom, in Gwer East Local Government Area, Benue State, which is part of the so-called Middle Belt in central Nigeria which divides the mainly Muslim north from the south where majority of the people are Christian.
Nineteen people, including Rev. Joseph Gor and Rev. Felix Tyolaha, who were celebrating the Mass, were killed in cold blood. Many more were wounded. After attacking the church the criminals torched the village destroying at least 60 homes and hay lofts. The people fled to the nearby villages in search of safety.
On April 20, 2018, Father Juan Miguel Contreras was shot to death inside a church on the outskirts of Guadalajara, Mexico as he was hearing confessions. The day before, Father Rubén Alcántara, Vicar General of the Diocese of Cautitlan Izalli, outside Mexico City, was stabbed to death. Five priests have been killed since the year began, putting the death toll of Catholic clergy at 24 since December 2012, when the six-year administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto began.
Although some of those priests appear to have been victims of random violence — a real risk in a nation that last year recorded nearly 30,000 homicides — others appear to have been targeted specifically because of their ecclesiastical work. In Guerrero, where multiple criminal groups are at war for control of the state’s lucrative heroin trade, priests have at times sought to broker truces between rival gangs. Priests in the state have also been on the front lines of efforts to locate and excavate mass graves.
“Violence against the clergy has increased in recent years, without seeing concrete actions to stop it”, said Father Omar Sotelo, Director of the Mexican Multimedia Center, which annually presents a report on the violence and murders of priests and religious in the Latin American country. “The population is permanently exposed to crime, we know it well, but now above all priesthood has become a dangerous ministry; in the last nine years, Mexico is the country with the highest number of priests killed”.
On September 23, 2017, the missionary Fr. Stanley Francis Rother became the first officially recognized American martyr. A native of Okarche, Oklahoma, USA, after several years of pastoral commitment as a parish vicar, he asked to be assigned to the mission that the diocese of Oklahoma City and Tulsa had in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala. He worked in Guatemala for many years.
Within the last year of his life, Rother saw the radio station smashed and its director murdered. His catechists and parishioners would disappear and later be found dead, with their bodies showing signs of having been beaten and tortured. Rother knew all this when he returned to Guatemala in May 1981. In December 1981 he had addressed a letter to the faithful in Oklahoma and wrote about the violent situation: “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. He was beatified in 2016.
The Holy See publishes a yearly an account of missionaries killed from year to year. The Xaverian Missionaries also continues to commemorate our martyrs of charity throughout the history of our missionary work in the world. Their lives are selfless accounts of service to the Church and the world, and a poignant reminder of the continued need of reconciliation and dialogue in a world of conflict and power struggle.
During a General Audience Pope Francis spoke about how the martyrs of the Church are examples of Christ, who also gave his life out of self-sacrifice and love. As such, he said that every Christian is a martyr, a witness to the sure hope that faith inspires. The martyrs who even today lay down their lives for the faith do so out of love. The example offered by martyrs gives Christians hope and inspires strength, setting down a path for being witnesses to the Gospel and repudiating violence, the pope said.
There are many other stories of priests, religious women and men, and lay people who, to this day, suffer violence and death in their work as missionaries. What it means to give it all for the sake of the Kingdom is clearly shown in the lives of these missionaries. Let us not romanticize this, their deaths were unsought and unwanted. But, despite the dangers, they continued with a courage some of us only dream of. As the Holy Father says, we are all called to that same tenacious faith that risks so much.