Saturday, July 30, 2016

Remembering the Zacamil massacre

In 1992, I spent a six month sabbatical in the parish of Santa Lucía in Suchitoto, El Salvador. Assisting the Salvadoran pastor and the six US sisters ministering there, I spent time in the countryside, accompanying the people, helping train catechists, visiting rural communities.

It was a formative time for me, especially as I experienced the faith and hospitality of a people that was poor and had suffered much from the war that was waged in that area.

I also heard many accounts of the war which led me later to seek more stories of the faith and struggle of the people in that parish.

Several people told me about the killings and the massacres which abounded in that area. 

Thirty-five years ago today, on July 30, 1981, about 130 people were killed at the community of Zacamil, in the municipality of Suchitoto, El Salvador, one of many massacres in El Salvador by US-supported government forces.

Commemoration of the Zacamil massacre, 29 July 2016
Here is my account of that massacre.

In January 1986, a resident of the displaced persons’ center in the Basilica in San Salvador reported:

“I was in Guazapa in July 1981 when there was a massacre. In the canton of Zacamil, 130 died. There were mostly women, children and elderly together in a shack when a Mustang flew over. There was a military operation to drive us out. I didn’t know where to go, there were bullets everywhere. There was a pregnant woman running next to me with three small children. She couldn’t keep up and the Army caught up with her. They cut off her head and the heads of her three children. . . .
“Machetes were used in the massacres. This way the people in Suchitoto wouldn’t hear lots of shouting and the noise of the massacres. So they would cut heads like animals. The bodies would keep moving and the hearts beating for a time. Seeing this gave me much fear for a long time. . .”
In February 1992 in La Mora, Gerardo Murillo told how he had escaped the massacre but went back after the troops had left. In the devastated ruins, he found the corpse of his mother-in-law; yet he found a brother who was still alive. They proceeded to pick up fifty or so bodies and put them in a well so that the dogs and vultures would not consume them.

A few months later, while visiting the repopulation of Zacamil and walking in the woods, a catechist pointed out to some mounds in the path. “There they buried some of the dead.”

An important question is why were the people there? Why had they not fled?

The people in the area had been on guinda for a long time. The long marches at night, the days in underground shelters, the paucity of food and the fear were too much for some of them. They were in Zacamil when the word came that the military was again approaching. Exhausted, drained physically and emotionally, many decided to stay: “We cannot go on.” Gerardo Murillo had led one group out to safety, but many stayed behind. The army came and massacred those who remained.

This is just one of several massacres that happened in the parish, one of the scores that happened in El Salvador.

Massacres and killings continue even today, whether by terrorist bombs or drone strikes. But I think it is important to remember that these are real people who died. It is also important to remember that in some parts of the world, particularly Central America, many of the massacres were perpetrated by soldiers financed by the US government, sometimes with US-supplied weaponry.

This is a cause for repentance even as we sit beside the victims as they mourn for their lost loved ones.

The photo is taken from the Facebook page of Centro Arte para la Paz, in Suchitoto.
[1] Central America Report (1986), 5.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Ten days a deacon

On Friday, July 15, I was ordained a permanent deacon for the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán, a diocese where I worked as a lay missionary since June 2007.

Now ordained, I feel more a member of this place and much less a missionary from without. In fact, I am now a member of the clergy of this diocese. My ministerial identity is as a deacon here – no longer as a missionary from outside.

But in some ways there is not a lot different in what I’m doing, especially since I’ve been living in a village in the parish of Dulce Nombre. I’m still preparing for training sessions for catechists; I’m still connecting with the youth leaders of youth groups and base communities; I’m still taking part in the parish council; I’m still bringing communion to the sick and occasionally to communities without extraordinary ministers of Communion.

But in many ways life has changed.

At Masses, I proclaim the Gospel, the Good News that sustains me and that offers hope to our people.

I have preached twice – last Sunday at the Mass of Thanksgiving and today at Mass in Concepción.

When I go visit the sick, I bring them Communion as I have before, but before leaving them I can bless them, in the name of the Church, with the Sign of the Cross. I am not blessing them from myself; but the blessing I can share is the blessing of God through the whole People of God gathered with the sick.

There is something about blessing people with the sign of the cross that I need to reflect on more.

People here are big on blessings. Often when a person encounters a god-parent, he or she will join the hands together and often bow before the god-parent who often places the god-child’s hands between his or her hands. The first time I saw this it struck me as a great sign of blessing and the importance of the relation between god-child and god-parent. What is especially fascinating is that the god-children are not only kids; I have often seen adults seek their god-parents’ blessings.

In light of this, blessing a person with the Sign of the Cross becomes for me an action that the community does, through me, blessing persons.

Toward I found this particularly poignant as I visited three ill people in their homes in Vertientes, after a Celebration of the Word with Communion with members of the community. In many ways, I felt blessed to be able to share God’s blessings with these elderly and ill persons in their poor houses.

But the big event was yesterday in Quebraditas. Even though Padre German presided at the Mass (the second of three he’d celebrated Saturday), he asked me to baptize the babies and little children at the Mass – all twenty of them. It was a new experience – squirming and screaming babies and proud parents and god-parents.

Again, it was a blessing to share God’s love with them through this sacrament.

This week promises some new experiences – including assisting at a Mass with First Communions.

But there was one other experience that stirred my heart.

The evening after my ordination, I arrived home and after talking with Phil who was visiting from St. Thomas Aquinas in Ames, I went up to pray.

For many years I have prayed parts of the Liturgy of Hours. I have tried every morning to pray Vigils from Benedictine Daily Prayer, followed by Morning Prayer in Spanish. I have tried to pray Evening Prayer in Spanish and at least parts of Night Prayer in English (accompanied by an Ignatian Examen.)

Now I have become more focused in praying these because at my ordination I promised to celebrate the Liturgy of the Hours “in the name of the Church and, even more so, in the name of the whole community.” (The English translation speaks of celebrating for the Church and the whole world.)

That first evening as I prayed the psalms I had a sense that I was not just praying for the Church and the world but in the name of the Church and the whole community,

The psalms were not only my prayer; they are the prayer of the People of God and of all God’s people in the world. Though I may not be experiencing the joy or the desperation of a particular psalm, there are people in the church and the world who are filled with joy, or suffering from anxiety and despair. When I am praying, I am praying with them, offering their joys and sighs to God.

Praying the Liturgy of the Hours thus becomes for me not only a way to praise God with the Church and the world; it is a way of being in solidarity with all God’s people; it is a way to accompany them in the presence of God – even accompanying those who do not know God or reject God.

So what is new about these ten days as a deacon?

I have a sense of the presence of God’s grace surrounding me and sustaining me.

I have a sense of being more connected with God’s people especially the sick and the poor.

I have a renewed sense of mission, of calling to accompany even more the poor.

I am challenged and encouraged by these words of Blessed Charles de Foucauld, the universal Little Brother:
Jesus came to Nazareth, the place of the hidden life, of ordinary life, of family life, of prayer, work, obscurity, silent virtues, practiced with no witnesses other than God, his friends and neighbors. Nazareth, the place where most people lead their lives. We must infinitely respect the least of our brothers… let us mingle with them. Let us be one of them to the extent that God wishes… and treat them fraternally in order to have the honor and joy of being accepted as one of them.
That is what I pray that I may continue to learn.