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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

449 I am finding out what Christmas is. It is that God came among human beings to give them hope.

Day 449 Tuesday June 7th 2021

“I am finding out what Christmas is. It is that God came among human beings to give meaning to all of them, principally the poorest and those disillusioned with life, to give them hope. This is what I am coming to understand more and more every year that I am in contact with the peoples of Quiché. They help me live the hope and joy which Jesus brings.”

- Fr. José Maria Gran Cirera, MSC, Spanish priest, Missionary of the Sacred Heart, and Domingo Bats, sacristan, killed near Xiexojbitz, in the municipality of Chajul, El Quiche, Guatemala, 4 June, 1980.

"The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church." its meaning is clear: try to annihilate the followers of Jesus Christ and they will sprout up in even greater numbers.

The Church venerates its martyrs with special liturgical feast days. The Feast of St. George had a particularly poignant meaning this year for the Catholics of Guatemala in the pope's native Latin America. Three Spanish-born priests of the Sacred Heart Missionaries and seven lay catechists of the indigenous Maya people were beatified on April 23 in the Cathedral of Santa Cruz de Quichè.

The first Native Indians in Central America to be called "blessed," were killed at various stages between 1980-1991 in the Diocese of Quiché in the western part of the country. The seven lay people are believed to be the very first Native American Indians to be declared "blessed" in Central America.

Perhaps the most notable of these "Martyrs of Quiché" was Juan Barrera, a child-catechist whose family belonged to Catholic Action. Juanito" was only twelve years old when the US-backed and trained Guatemalan military tortured and killed him in January 1980. Archbishop Gonzalo de Villa, a Jesuit who was installed last September as head of the Archdiocese of Santiago de Guatemala, called the boy the "proto-martyr" of the group.

The Spanish-born archbishop, whose family immigrated to the Central American country when he was only eight years old, choked up and held back tears during a prayer service the evening before the beatifications as he paid tribute to the child-martyr Juanito. But he said it was a day of great joy for Catholics in Guatemala, who were hounded by government forces for allegedly siding with leftist guerrillas during an undeclared and brutal civil war that dragged on from 1960-1996.

An estimated 200,000 people were killed or made to disappear during the long and vicious war. They included Catholic missionaries, priests and women religious, even from the United States. But most of the victims were Mayans, and the poor indigenous Catholics who lived in the administrative Department of El Quiché were among those most hounded by pro-government forces.

A missionary bishop from that era noted that "it was enough to have a Catholic bible or a rosary to be classified as a guerrilla member and, therefore, a prisoner of death". This was well-known. And when Pope John Paul II visited Guatemala in February 1996 -- nearly a year before the final peace accords were signed -- there was still the feel of persecution in the air. I went to Guatemala City to cover that papal visit. I then got a flight to El Salvador to spend a week with a group of Franciscans. I can still remember the fear that seized me at the airport when an officer at the security check pulled a bible from my carry-on bag and began to carefully examine the initial pages inside its cover.

My heart raced as he ran his index finger slowly down one of those pages. Then he stopped. He closed the book, gave it back and waved me through. He had halted at these words: "New Revised Standard Version Bible, Copyright @ 1989. By the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Lucky for me, it was an ecumenical edition and the words Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur were nowhere to be found.

Many Guatemalan Catholics, and the missionaries who came to help them during that long civil war, were not so fortunate. Some of them -- like the Blessed Stanley Rother of Oklahoma -- have already been officially recognized as martyrs by the Vatican. Countless others remain unknown or forgotten. We'll probably never know all of their names. However, the Martyrs of Quiché should humble Catholics who live in affluent, secularized countries, especially when we or our spiritual leaders complain that our religious freedoms are being eroded or outright denied. We should be especially ashamed and critical when we, or those who speak in our name, have the audacity to claim that we face persecution for our beliefs.

But that is the type of rhetoric some Catholics have used during the coronavirus pandemic, while protesting the forced closure of churches and schools for health emergency reasons. Others have been whining about the marginalization and even persecution of Catholics in Europe and the United States long before COVID-19 arrived.

Blessed Juanito Barrera was taken by Guatemalan soldiers, who were very possibly trained by the CIA. They took this 12-year-old boy to a shallow stream and flayed the soles of his feet. They forced him to walk on the stones of that riverbed before they cut off his ears and broke his legs. The soldiers then shot Juanito several times. Later when his lifeless body was recovered, a rosary was found in the pocket of his trousers.

The meaning of the cross Juanito and the other martyrs who were beatified on April 23 lived in what was then called the Diocese of Santa Cruz de Quiché. The Cross remains the most visible symbol for all who profess to be followers of Jesus of Nazareth, one who was tortured and then murdered on a cross. He put up no resistance and harshly rebuked those of his followers that did.

Jesus "endured the cross, disregarding the shame of it", says the author of the Letter to the Hebrews." Consider him who endured such hostility...You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood," the writer of that epistle says (cf. Hebrews 12, 2-4).

Do we of the affluent, secularized world, who cherish the cross as the most precious emblem of our faith, have a right to complain about being discriminated against? We drain the cross of Christ of its true meaning and render meaningless the replicas of it that we wear around our neck or put on our walls. If we really believe that we must strike back at everything in society that does not respect our faith or Christianity, then perhaps we need to find another symbol.

This is something worth meditating on next June 4th when the Church of Guatemala celebrates Feast of the Martyrs of Quiché.

By Robert Mickens

Follow me on Twitter @robinrome

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