by Fr. Jim Betzen, C.PP.S., Pastor, St. Mary’s Church in Ottumwa, Iowa
In January of 2011, I attended the Maryknoll Pilgrimage retreat, where we visited the shrines of the Central American martyrs. Joining other priests, brothers and deacons from the United States, I arrived at the Maryknoll house in Guatemala, where we were welcomed and heard stories of the ministry of the Maryknoll missionaries. The retreat was visits from those who worked with the martyrs.
Our tour took us to many shrines where the Central American martyrs who gave their lives are commemorated, including Archbishop Oscar Romero’s shrine and martyrdom site, and shrines to Sisters Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, and lay volunteer, Jean Donovan. We visited the Central American University, where six Jesuit professors were martyred for their teaching about human rights and visited a museum dedicated to the martyrs, including Fr. Rutilio Grande, whose death prompted Archbishop Romero to become more involved with protecting his people against the military. In Guatemala, we visited the village of San Lucas and later, the village of Santiago Atitlán; the area where Fr. Stanley Rother, a priest from Okarche, Oklahoma, who worked tirelessly as pastor to further the development of his parishioners, who returned to his parish after escaping assassination once and later was shot and died in his rectory. We visited the tomb of auxiliary Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi, author of Nunca Mas (Never Again), who led the truth-finding commission after the long civil war, implicating the military in war crimes. We visited the house and garage where Bishop Gerardi was bludgeoned to death.
The last few days, we returned to the Maryknoll house and heard the stories of the Maryknoll missionaries and their ministry with the poor and struggles with the military during the civil war.
There are several lessons this retreat offered. First of all, we are called to global concern for the human rights of all peoples and awareness that human rights violations continue today. We must be vigilant citizens of our own country, telling our elected officials we support human aid over military aid, and that we do not want our country to support foreign governments that oppress and deny its citizens basic protection and human rights. Our national interests must always be measured against the welfare of the citizens of these countries. For us who encounter immigrants, hopefully we seek the truth rather than form biased opinions. We must always ask why people would leave their homes and extended families to come to a foreign land where life will be difficult. Most immigrants come to our country and our communities to escape poverty, oppression and/or violence. Another measure is to learn as much as we can from documentaries on TV and Internet about injustice throughout the world. Finally, we must always pray for victims of injustice and oppression. We can also pray for more leaders like the martyrs of Central America who worked for the advancement of the poor.