On this week’s Vatican Connections, we look at the long-awaited beatification decree for Archbishop Oscar Romero. We talk to Father Frank Desiderio, a Paulist priest who worked with the producer of the 1989 film about the martyr, and we look at the reaction of Salvadoreans who have long referred to their slain archbishop as “el santo.” Plus we take a look at some very clear instruction Pope Francis gave bishops around the world and bring you a look at a very special Google Hangout with very special kids.
This week Archbishop Oscar Romero was officially recognized as a martyr by the pope. During a press conference Vatican officials referred to Romero as a “protomartyr," meaning the first in series of martyrs killed under the same conditions. We won’t have to wait long to see the rest of that series of martyrs. Pope Francis recognized the martyrdom of three priests who were killed by communist guerillas in Peru in 1991.
Fathers Michal Tomaszek and Zbignew Strzalkwoski were conventual Fransiscans originally from Poland. They arrived in Peru in 1989 and 1988, respectively, where they would care for four parishes in Black Mountain range. They lived in the town of Pariacote and become part of the local community.
Conditions in the area were not easy. According to Father Jaros?aw Wysocza?ski, a confrere who worked with them in Peru and happened to be away when they were killed, providing for the local’s spiritual needs also required providing for their basic welfare. The friars developed catechesis programs, basic education programs, and worked with international aid organizations to provide drinking water and health services.
The problem was the people the friars were ministering to were the same demographic of Peruvians that Shining Path guerillas were trying to recruit to their revolution. What’s more, as long as these peasants were being formed in their faith and being active in their parishes, the less inclined they were to pick up arms and fight.
Fr. Alessandro Dordi, a diocesan priest from Bergamo, Italy, worked in the same region as the Franciscan friars and faced the same hardships. Fr. Dordi arrived in Peru in 1980, the year the Shining Path stepped up their efforts to take power.
Like the two Polish priests, Fr. Dordi learned that providing for his flock’s pastoral needs also meant building a chapel, a meeting place, and providing basic literacy training for the locals. His efforts also interfered with the guerrillas’ plans to recruit the poor and oppressed to their armed revolution.
Eyes wide open
All three priests were aware that the Shining Path viewed the church and her members as enemies. All three men knew their ministry could put them in cross hairs of the guerilla’s guns. Yet, even though they all had the option of leaving the country, all three refused to leave their parishioners.
On August 9, 1991 armed Shining Path members arrived at the Fransiscan friary in Pariacoto looking for “the priests.” According to Fr. Wysocza?ski his confreres were taken to the town hall, ordered to get into their Jeep, and driven to an area nearby called “Old Town.” They were executed along with the mayor of the town.
In a neighbouring valley Fr. Dordi was acutely aware of fate of his brother priests. In a letter to a friend he wrote “Shining Path, which wants to use terror to take power, has put the church in its crosshairs...the situation in Peru in anguishing. Everyday we ask ‘whose turn will it be today?’”
His turn came on August 25, 1991. The priest and two seminarians were leaving a remote village where they had just celebrated Mass. As they travelled towards Santa, hooded guerillas waited around one of the curves in the road. The armed men ambushed the vehicle and ordered the seminarians out of the car. The two young men were sent on their way, walking back to their village. As they walked out of range they heard gunshots ring out and knew, Fr. Dordi had been executed.
In 2007 a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Peru estimated that out of the 70,000 deaths that occured during the years of violent insurgency, 37,800 of those were committed by Shining Path guerillas.