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Idaho deacon gets firsthand look at lives of modern-day martyrs

The following story appeared in the June 9 Idaho Catholic Register.

Deacon Chris Stewart assisted at Masses during his pilgrimage through El Salvador and Guatemala. (Courtesy photo/Deacon Chris Stewart)


By Deacon Chris Stewart

for the Idaho Catholic Register


COEUR D’ALENE – Last fall, my spiritual director referred me to a prayer unit in the “Prayer Companions’ Handbook,” by Father John Wickham, SJ. The unit provided scripture to pray over while seeking the grace of “a stronger yes to my existence.”

I’ll leave it to the reader to pray their way into all the implications that receiving this grace might mean in their lives. For each one of us, each unique in our own design and relationship, that grace might land differently and take root powerfully in myriad directions giving glory to God in diverse and important ways.


As if to say, “Be careful what you pray for,” my time reflecting led me to a powerful glimpse of what a stronger yes has looked like for others. Specifically, I studied the lives of the Central American martyrs, the faithful who are embedded in the history of violence and oppression in Central America in the 1970s through the 1990s.


I joined the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers on a pilgrimage-retreat to El Salvador and Guatemala for diocesan clergy from all over the United States. On our pilgrimage were 14 priests, five Permanent Deacons and three Maryknoll guides. The Maryknoll guides included two priests who have served since the early 1970s.


The goal of this annual pilgrimage-retreat is to share firsthand knowledge of this era in Church history through visits to the places and conversations with the people (those still alive) who can personally share the complicated story that unfolded during this time. Through study of the history there, I thought I was prepared for this adventure. I was not.


Deacon Chris Stewart, who serves at St. Pius X Parish in Coeur d'Alene experienced a pilgrimage-retreat in Central America this year. (Courtesy photo/Deacon Chris Stewart)

I was not prepared because the pilgrimage was such a powerful response to my prayers to understand that grace for which I was praying, a stronger yes. It was just such a yes that propelled so many servants of God to dedicate themselves as missionaries to the poor of central America. The pilgrimage showed me the great love – and the justice and solidarity that this love seeks – that was at the center of the Catholic Church’s efforts in this region. My previous study gave me abstract knowledge about the people and places and a good context for the visit. Being there, especially being there with people who were there at the time of the “La Violencia” (“The Violence”) as they called it in Guatemala, provided me a lived experience of the stronger yes that propelled their lives in ministry and ultimately to recognition as Blesseds and Saints.


We started our trip with visits to various sites connected to the martyrdom of San Salvador Archbishop Óscar Romero, now a saint, who was assassinated in 1980 while celebrating Mass. The Archbishop’s pastoral focus and passion increasingly shifted to one of solidarity and defense of the poor, especially after the killing of his friend, Father Rutilio Grande.


We visited Blessed Stanley Rother’s church in Santiago Atitlan in Guatemala. I was moved by something one of my fellow pilgrims, Father Mike Hennessey, CSP, noted after our visit there: that even though there is martyrdom in the Church, we are a living faith and one of resurrection. That was so clear at Santiago Atitlan.


We stayed overnight sleeping on floors in rooms throughout the rectory in and around the place where, in 1981, Father Rother was shot and killed during a struggle with those trying to kidnap him. We ate meals together with the staff and current pastor. We watched a movie of Blessed Stanley Rother’s life in the living room. In the morning, we sang songs written by one of his Tz’utujil Maya companions in the room where he was killed.


We were amazed at the number of Sunday Masses and the number of faithful attending these vibrant liturgies. After a Mass we concelebrated, we each paired up with their homebound ministers (they have 60 people who do homebound visits!) to offer prayers for the sick in their homes. We learned about life in Santiago Atitlan during and after Blessed Stanley Rother’s time there. What a strong and vibrant Catholic community he helped build that now sustains itself.


There was there, in that place, the blood of a martyr of just 40 years ago, shed for the love of his people – total, complete, self-giving love. There is no stronger yes. Today, a beautiful Catholic community is built on that love, a community that is living the “life abundant” that Christ promised.


Jon Sobrino, SJ worked alongside the University of Central America (UCA) martyrs who were killed in 1989 when members of the Salvardoran military murdered six Jesuit priests and two others at the university because they spoke out against the government and were advocates for the poor. Father Sobrino would have been a victim along with his Jesuit brothers had he not been in Thailand on a lecture tour. He summarizes the story in a BBC video (“Killing priests is Good News”) saying that the painful part is that they were killed. However, he emphasizes the spiritual consolation he receives when remembering his friends and the beauty of their lives. “They were killed because they showed great love.”


It is true that these martyrs give witness to the Gospel by their deaths. But, they also give witness by their lives; lives lived in complete freedom and love. Theirs were lives dedicated to unity, reconciliation, peace and justice. They were able to do so because they prayed for and received the grace of a strong yes to their existence.


The pilgrimage also took me more deeply into the lives of other martyrs: the three nuns and a lay worker who were abducted, raped and killed in El Salvador in December 1980; Blessed Cosme Spes-sotto, OFM, martyred in June 1980; Bishop Juan José Gerardi, beaten to death in his garage in Guatemala in April 1998; and numerous other martyrs, priests and religious.

I prayed for the grace of a stronger yes to my existence and was given a two-week living portrait of how our Church and her missionaries flowed into the lives of the poor and oppressed in Central America in the latter half of the 20th century. It was a masterpiece of love, solidarity and self-sacrifice that is difficult, perhaps impossible, to express in words. Thanks be to God!


The pilgrimage-retreat for diocesan clergy is held each year. The next one is scheduled for Jan. 8-19, 2024. For more information about this and other immersion trips with the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, call Kris East at 510-276-5021 or email keast@ maryknoll.org.


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