Thursday, July 24, 2014


Final posting on the Gate pilgrimage to Guatemala
   The Holy Week processions in Antigua Guatemala reach their zenith on Good Friday.  Members of the various parishes of the city prepare their floats with statues of the suffering Jesus.  Many include the sorrowful mother Mary also suffering for us. The cobblestone streets are decorated with special ‘rugs’ which are works of art.  

They are made with colored sawdust, flowers and vegetables.  The heavy floats are carried in shifts by the faithful dressed as middle easterners. Thousands of people line the streets for the passion spectacle starting at 4:00 A.M. and continuing well into the next morning.   


   Perhaps for some of the tourists Holy Week in Antigua Guatemala is an experience of 16th century pageantry.  For others it is very personal. The personal message is easily accepted, but difficult to practice.  To imitate the story of the life of Jesus is a continuing personal ‘jihad.’ Arguments against a personal goal of love of neighbor as non violence and forgiveness seem hollow.   

   There are no banners or slogans but some see a political message in the story of Jesus’ life and passion.  The University of San Carlos in Guatemala City does a Holy Week presentation depicting the Guatemalan indigenous as the suffering Jesus executed by the Guatemalan military.  ( http// also Before he was martyred in 1998 Bishop Gerardi wrote:

The suffering of Christ in his mystical body is something that should cause us to reflect.  That is to say, if the poor are out of our lives then, maybe, Christ is out of our lives.  (Goldman, Francisco, The Art of Political Murder, Grove Press, New York, 2007, p. 12)

Statements like this were correctly understood as political by Gerardi’s killers   There is a political message when a core part of evangelization is “preferential option for the poor.” Pope Francis’ renunciation of Ronald Reagan’s trickle down economics makes this clear.  (Evangelii Gaudium, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC, 2013, #54, p. 54.)

Let us consider reflections by two other companions on the pilgrimage.

Gerard Mullaney, Cuyahoga Fall, OH

   You asked for my reflection on the processions and the genocide.  So here goes.  I see the processions as a metaphor for our journey through life.  Life includes suffering – the platforms of the processions depicted Jesus processing with us and suffering with us – and we walking in procession with Him.  As we reflect on Jesus and His posture in regard to is persecution, we do not see anger nor do we see any giving in to injustice or the ways of the times that He sought to challenge.  We see Jesus simply remaining faithful to God’s message of peace, justice and love (which also includes forgiveness of His persecutors) – while accepting that suffering may come.  Perhaps this then inspires not only those who experienced the genocide, but all of us to move beyond what was done and what is done that brings suffering and to respond to a call for peace, justice, and love as Jesus did – and He is processing with us.

Joan Bleidorn, Milwaukee

   The April, 2014 G.A.T.E. trip to Guatemala was truly a transformative experience for me, giving me first hand evidence of the disastrous effects of U.S. foreign policies in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.  The policies of privatization, the acquisition of land by the wealthy, to be used for growing export crops like sugar cane, the rapacious mining, poisoning the water, the civil war massacring the poor in their small villages – all these things led to the breakdown of society, the development of a violent drug culture, often involving those in high place like the police and the government.  We are seeing a blowback at this time, with children on the U.S. border risking their lives to seek safety in the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”  U.S, policies have created this situation, and we now owe these refugee children a place of haven and welcome.

Friday, July 18, 2014


   Antigua - founded in 1543 and named Santiago de los Caballeros. 

The city of Antigua was the third capital of the colony of Guatemala.  This Spanish colony included almost all of Central America including Chiapas which today is part of Mexico.  After devastating earthquakes in 1773, the capital of the country was moved to Guatemala City.  Many Guatemalans abandoned the city of Antigua, but some of the ruins of colonial buildings remain.  The name of the old capital, Santiago de los Caballeros, was changed then to Antigua Guatemala (the old Guatemala). 

Where have we been and where are we going?

   We arrived on Tuesday of Holy Week in Antigua to experience the famous processions which rival Seville, Spain as a tourist attraction.  We found ourselves enveloped in late medieval architecture, and anticipating our participation in late medieval piety with the processions and rituals. The small town of about 35,000 is packed with visitors from all over the world for Holy Week.

                                  Preparing for the Good Friday Processions in Antigua

The baroque architecture of the ruins of the 1773 earthquake is still easily perceived, and some of the buildings have been restored to look like the originals.  The dominating architecture transports you back to the days of the Spanish empire.

Bartolome de Las Casas, O.P.   

   Joanne and I went for a brief walk in the city.  We came upon the Merced, the remains of a church and convent built by the Mercedarian Fathers from 1749 – 1767.  

                                              Church of the Merced in Antigua

Despite being constructed to withstand earthquakes, the complex was badly damaged in the 1773 earthquake.  The restored version of the church is a close version of the original building.  

   In the front of the building is a statue of Bartolomé de Las Casas, O.P., Bishop of the area from 1543 to 1547. 

                                     Statue of Bertolome de las Casas outside the Church of the Merced

He was called ‘Defender of the Indigenous People.’  Opposing the prevailing theology of the day, Las Casas insisted that the Indigenous were fully human and had full rights as human beings.  He denounced the ‘encomienda’ system established by Imperial Spain for the Spanish Americas in 1502.  According to this system the encomendero (owner) was given an allotment of indigenous people to protect and instruct in the Roman Catholic faith.  In return the indigenous were to provide labor and tribute to the encomendero. A similar program was used in Spain in the reconquista (reconquest) of Muslim territory.  Gustavo Gutierrez writes that a key reason for Las Casas’ fierce opposition was that “these laws perpetuate and definitively establish the system of distribution (of native people), or encomienda, that is the servitude of the Indians and the exploitation of their labor.”  (Gutierrez, Gustavo, Las Casas, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 1993, p. 284.)  

   Las Casas instructed confessors to refuse absolution to encomenderos unless they freed the Indians working as slaves on their work sites. (Ibid. p.33) The nearby provinces of northern and southern ‘Vera Paz’ (true peace) were named reflecting the quality of life advocated by Las Casas and his Dominican Friars.

    The founder of Liberation Theology, Peruvian Gustavo Gutierrez, notes that Las Casas insisted that the colonial economic system be completely abandoned not merely adjusted. (Ibid. p. 288)   United States’ global neo-liberalism of today is a similar economic system that desperately needs to be changed.  Gutierrez refers to the Latin American Bishop’s documents from Medellin, Columbia (1968) and Puebla, Mexico (1979), which advocate change in political and economic structures, to demonstrate that the Church’s tradition of justice for all, preached by Las Casas, continues. (Ibid. p. 286) 

   We toured the beautiful baroque Merced Church.  Inside parishioners were preparing their float for the processions.

   Three of us decided to go to visit the Santo Domingo Church; we thought it was a church, but it turned out to be a luxury hotel and a museum.  The original church and Dominican convent were destroyed in the 1773 earthquake. Remains of the original church can be found in the hotel-museum complex.

                   Dominican Shield displayed in the Hotel/Museum of Sancto Domingo in Antigua

   I talked to a museum guide about Bartolome de Las Casas and also the massacres of the indigenous during the civil war.  I asked him if he felt that revenge was necessary.  He thought awhile and responded, “No! Father Bartolomé would say no.” I asked another Guatemalan about the guide’s response and he said, “It’s a Ladino (upper class) comment – he’s told you what you wanted to hear.”

Holy Thursday at the Antigua Guatemala Cathedral

   On Holy Thursday we went to Mass at the Cathedral.  We arrived early, but the plaza in front and the church itself swarmed with people.  We saw room available in the front of the church; Joanne and I went up to claim the seats, but we were told they were reserved.  We went to a side aisle; our companions remain in the back standing.  At least we had the wall to lean on during the long ceremony.  The entrance procession included the Bishop, clergy and well dressed lay leaders of the church, certainly Ladinos or upper class.  They took the reserved seats in the front near the altar.  The Bishop washed the feet of the important Ladinos in the Holy Thursday ritual which attempts to enact the story of Jesus washing the feet of the Apostles at the Last Supper.

   The readings of Holy Thursday are selected to point to key understandings of Salvation History.  The homilist, the Bishop of the area, chose to emphasize the importance and the need for priests.

   It is ironic that the myth of the Eucharist and the Catholic priesthood was in the process of collapse during the 16th century in northern Europe yet still remains viable in Guatemala with similar 16th century trappings.  Is it that some Latinos & Ladinos, by necessity are better at salvaging the good from a myth and simply ignoring the obvious absurdities? 

   The myth of the priesthood and the Eucharist establish an upper class institution yet still were a challenge to the racism and greed of the U.S. dominated, global economic system.  The numerous martyred priests and religious are witnesses. Is it reasonable to ask: do the myths enveloping Jesus, the young Jewish handyman executed by imperial Rome, in one way or another make sense of our lives politically and personally?    

Thursday, July 3, 2014


Jesus returns to Jerusalem...

Then taking the twelve aside he said to them, “Now we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything written by the prophets about the Son of Man is to come true. For he will  be handed over to the pagans and will be mocked, maltreated and spat on, and when they have scourged him they will put him to death; and on the third day he will rise again.”  But they could make nothing of this; what he said was obscure to them, they had no idea what it meant. (Luke 18, 31-34)

                                               Lake Atitlan

   We went by van on a short trip to parish of Santiago Atitlan. Both San Lucas and Santiago are on the picturesque resort Lake Atitlan.  

                             Lake Atitlan - Guatemalan Resort Area

   Santiago Atitlan was the parish of Father Stan Rother from Oklahoma City.  Father Rother was murdered by the Guatemalan military in 1981.  We visited his church and the rectory where he was killed.

                            Patio of Father Rother's Santiago Church

  The Pastor of San Lucas Toliman, Father Gregg Schaffer, warned his fellow pastor at Santiago Atitlan, Father Stan Rother, that the military was after Father Stan.

   Father Rother was not politically ‘concientizado.’ There was nothing reported about him conducting clandestine meetings.  No one says they remember Father Stan discussing the 1968 document of Medellin promulgated by the Latin American Bishops demanding changes in political and economic structures.  The military targeted the pastoral priest because of his unrelenting support for his cherished parishioners. During an army attack Father Rother sheltered hundreds of people in his church.

   At the advice of Father Gregg Schaffer, Father Stan Rother returned to Oklahoma City.  He was invited to preach at an Oklahoma City church and he questioned Reagan’s claim that the communist threat in Central America justified the massive military assistance given to these countries.  A parishioner reported Father Stan’s sermon to the Guatemalan embassy. 


                    Memorial to Father Stan Rother, Santiago Church

   Father Rother couldn’t be away from his beloved people while they were under attack.  He returned to Santiago Atitlan to face the military bent on genocide.  Within a few months Father Stan was murdered.  His body was sent to Oklahoma City for burial but his heart remains enshrined in the church at Santiago Atitlan. 

Nakal kolonton – My heart is at peace

*Laughlin, Robert, with woodblock prints by Naul Ojeda, Diccionario del Corazon, from a Mayan dictionary compiled in 1599 by a Dominican Friar - metaphors of the heart with the Spanish medieval translation and the modern Spanish version.  Taller Leñateros, San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico 2003.

     The name of the town 'Santiago' is significant.  Many cities in Latin America are called Santiago.  The name refers to St. James; some scripture scholars would speculate that St. James was Jesus’ brother and a Pharisee.  A legend tells us that the remains of St. James, after martyrdom, were sent miraculously from the Holy Land by boat to northeastern Spain.  James arose from the dead to lead Christians to a military victory over the Muslims.  There is a city in Mexico called Santiago Matamoros – St. James the Muslim killer.  Churches in Spain and Latin America have statues and paintings of Santiago Matamoros riding on his horse and wielding his sword.
   I didn’t notice a painting or statue of Santiago in Stan Rother’s church or town.  Again it was perhaps because of being overwhelmed by the stories of Rother’s murder and the slaughter of the indigenous in the area.  I wasn’t looking for Santiago on his horse; after all we couldn’t blame him … or could we?

   Matamoros is the name of a military post and prison in Guatemala City.  General Efrain Rios Montt was taken to Matamoros Prison in 2013 after being convicted of genocide.  A companion on the trip recalls the statue of Santiago Matamoros outside Stan Rother’s church, but does not remember a statue or painting inside the church.

   Our next stop in Santiago was the Peace Park.  (Parque de la Paz)  At first I didn’t realize it, but just our presence was an acknowledgement of a victory for the people and a sign of hope for Guatemala.  Two Guatemalan leaders, poet and theologian Julia Esquivel, and the head of the water project in Chutzoropi, stated unequivocally to us that there was no hope for Guatemala through the government.

                                   Santiago Peace Park

   We experienced a sign of hope when we visited the Peace Park.  The people of Santiago Atitlan successfully rejected military force – the power of the government.

   On December 1, 1990 a group of soldiers from the local military post were out partying and got out of control.  They killed one of the townspeople who were trying to constrain them.  In the morning thousands marched to the garrison to demand an end to the murderous rampaging of the military in Santiago.  The townspeople were met with gunfire; eleven were killed and several injured.    

   Community leaders demanded a meeting with the Guatemalan government.  With international support, an agreement was reached permanently removing the military from the town of Santiago.

                          Graves of the massacred at the Peace Park

   The graves of those killed in the massacre are in the Peace Park along with a plaque stating the agreement of the government to remove the military from the area.  There are no religious symbols such as Santiago Matamoros. However, every year on December l, a celebration takes place to remember the victory of the people; part of the celebration is a Catholic Mass.  

    Peace Park, Saturday, December 2, 1990, Panabaj, Santiago Atitlan

by Julia Esquivel, in exile, New York City.

I think of the Indians
driven from Manhattan with blood and fire
and my heart
crushed by sorrow
along with other hearts in solidarity
struggles to turn back the claws of Capital
poised over Santiago Atitlan ...

The homeland is an altar – not a pedestal.

The Certainty of Spring, The Ecumenical Program, Washington, D.C. 1993