The Martyrs of Quiche (Guatemala)




On the occasion of the beatification of the ten martyrs of Quiche in Guatemala (three religious priests and seven lay people), this article was written to clarify the cause and historical circumstances of their martyrdom. This is also to honor the memory of so many others who suffered and died during the dark period of their history.

On 10 May 2021, this article has been endorsed by the Commission for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation of the Union of Superiors General and the International Union of Superiors General. Permission is given for its wider dissemination. On April 23, 2021, three priests belonging to the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC) and seven catechists were beatified in Quiche, Guatemala. The religious priests were: Fr. Jose Maria Gran Cirera, Fr. Juan Alonso Fernandez and Fr. Faustino Villanueva. The seven lay people were: Rosalío Benito, Reyes Us, Domingo del Barrio, Nicolás Castro, Tomás Ramírez, Miguel Tiú and Juan Barrera Méndez who was then only twelve years old. The ten martyrs were tortured and murdered by security forces and death squads in the early 1980s. Four other martyrs who died around this period were earlier beatified. Among them were Fr. Tulio Marcello Maruzzo – an Italian Franciscan, Fr. Stanley Rother – a diocesan priest from the US, Bro. James Miller - a La Salle brother also from the US. There were also other priests who were murdered: Fr. Eufemio Lopez, Fr. Walter Voorkdeckers (CICM), Fr. Carlos Galvez Galindo, Fr. Carlos Morales Lopez (OP), Augusto Ramirez Monasterio (OFM). Two other priests were abducted and disappeared: Fr Carlos Alonso (SJ) and Fr. Conrado dela Cruz (from the Philippines). Bishop Juan Gerardi - the former bishop of Quiche – was assassinated in 1998 by army officers. Their martyrdom has still to be recognized by Rome. What were the historical circumstances and the basis for the Church’s recognition of their martyrdom? In 1952, President Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala carried out a land reform program which riled the US-owned United Fruit Company (UFC) that controlled forty-two percent of the land in the country. Labelling the Guatemalan government a communist threat, the UFC engaged in a lobbying campaign that convinced President Dwight Eisenhower to act. The US secretary of state – John Foster Dulles – and his brother Allen Dulles – the CIA head – who had previous links with the UFC engineered the plan to overthrow Arbenz which was code- named Operation PBSuccess. Since 1954 after the CIA-instigated coup of a democratically elected government, Guatemala was ruled by successive military regimes for four decades with the support of the landed elite and United States of America. In the efforts to stamp out resistance, countless violation of human rights and atrocities were committed. Over two hundred thousand people were killed and forty thousand were abducted and disappeared – the disaperecidos. Majority of the victims were the Mayan Indians most of whom were poor and dispossessed. A United Nations Commission would later declare this a genocide perpetrated by the right-wing dictatorial regimes – especially under Efrain Rios Montt. During the 1980s, the Guatemalan military assumed almost absolute government power and tried to eliminate perceived enemies in every socio-political institution of the nation, including the political, social, and intellectual classes. Security forces and death squads funded, trained and equipped by the US carried out these extrajudicial killings. The


Reagan administration increased its support for the dictatorial regime in spite the restrictions imposed during the Carter administration. The period under Rios Montt was the bloodiest with widespread massacres of the Mayan Indians which the military regime considered as the mass base of the resistance movement. Other victims of the repression included activists, left-leaning politicians, trade unionists, academics, journalists, students, returning refugees, street children and religious workers. In the midst of this situation, many priests, religious and lay people expressed their solidarity with the poor and spoke out against the injustices and violence. Thus, the Catholic Church became the object of persecution for its role in the defense of the dignity and rights of the poor. Those who faithfully carried out the Church’s mission of promoting justice and peace suffered. Many were abducted and disappeared. Others were killed. The bishops of Guatemala in their message on March 21, 2021 explained the basis for their beatification: "They shed their blood during the years of internal armed conflict because they were convinced that there is no greater love than giving one's life for others and, as Catholics, insisted on upholding the Kingdom of Heaven values proclaimed by the Lord Jesus: defense of human dignity, respect for life, social justice and protection of the weakest and most vulnerable.” In an interview with Vatican News, Bishop Rosolino Bianchetti of Quiché diocese described what these martyrs did: “In spite of the threats, they embraced their cross and were persecuted and eventually killed by those who considered the teachings of the Gospel a danger to the interests of the powerful. With the Word of God and the Rosary in hand, they would go around communities assisting those in need. The priests would act as guides for the people, while the laypeople visited the sick, served in the church, and, after finishing their jobs as farmers, would help the peasants recover lands that had been unjustly stolen from them.” Traditionally, martyrdom is associated with “odium fidei” – hatred of the faith of those who profess it. This was the case in the first three centuries, in the seventeenth to the eighteenth centuries during the missionary expansion in Asia, in the early 20th century during the Spanish Civil War and World War II. In this case in Guatemala, martyrdom was the consequence of practicing their faith, a faith expressed not just in holding on to a set of beliefs but also in the liberating faith that does justice and in solidarity with the poor and oppressed. This was not simply political praxis but prophetic acts and expression of Christian discipleship. Martyrdom was the consequence of fulfilling their prophetic mission. This was the kind of martyrdom similar to that of St. Oscar Romero and other undeclared martyrs in Latin America and elsewhere. Pope Francis’ and the universal Church’s recognition of the martyrs of Guatemala is, therefore, very significant and needs to be celebrated as a development of the understanding of martyrdom. This is also a recognition of the contribution of the local Church in Guatemala in promoting integral human development, justice and peace which is an authentic expression of the Christian faith. In the midst of this situation, many priests, religious and lay people expressed their solidarity with the poor and spoke out against the injustices and violence. Thus, the Catholic Church became the object of persecution for its role in the defense of the dignity and rights of the poor. Those who faithfully carried out the Church’s mission of promoting justice and peace suffered. Many were abducted and disappeared. Others were killed. The bishops of Guatemala in their message on March 21, 2021 explained the basis for their beatification:


"They shed their blood during the years of internal armed conflict because they were convinced that there is no greater love than giving one's life for others and, as Catholics, insisted on upholding the Kingdom of Heaven values proclaimed by the Lord Jesus: defense of human dignity, respect for life, social justice and protection of the weakest and most vulnerable.”


In an interview with Vatican News, Bishop Rosolino Bianchetti of Quiché diocese described what these martyrs did:


“In spite of the threats, they embraced their cross and were persecuted and eventually killed by those who considered the teachings of the Gospel a danger to the interests of the powerful. With the Word of God and the Rosary in hand, they would go around communities assisting those in need. The priests would act as guides for the people, while the laypeople visited the sick, served in the church, and, after finishing their jobs as farmers, would help the peasants recover lands that had been unjustly stolen from them.”


Traditionally, martyrdom is associated with “odium fidei” – hatred of the faith of those who profess it. This was the case in the first three centuries, in the seventeenth to the eighteenth centuries during the missionary expansion in Asia, in the early 20th century during the Spanish Civil War and World War II. In this case in Guatemala, martyrdom was the consequence of practicing their faith, a faith expressed not just in holding on to a set of beliefs but also in the liberating faith that does justice and in solidarity with the poor and oppressed. This was not simply political praxis but prophetic acts and expression of Christian discipleship. Martyrdom was the consequence of fulfilling their prophetic mission. This was the kind of martyrdom similar to that of St. Oscar Romero and other undeclared martyrs in Latin America and elsewhere.


Pope Francis’ and the universal Church’s recognition of the martyrs of Guatemala is, therefore, very significant and needs to be celebrated as a development of the understanding of martyrdom. This is also a recognition of the contribution of the local Church in Guatemala in promoting integral human development, justice and peace which is an authentic expression of the Christian faith.


In the midst of armed conflict Catholic bishops quietly promoted peace talks and address the roots of violence: the political, social and economic inequities. They supported the initiative of the Lutheran World Federation to bring together military, government and


Fr. Amado L. Picardal, CSsR

JPIC THEME IN 2020-21

Engaging Laudato Si'

We commit ourselves to both personal and communal conversion and

We wish to move forward together in an orchestrated and coordinated response

In listening to the cry of the Earth and the cry of the Poor

As we go forth as instruments of hope in the heart of the world.—The vision adopted by the UISG Plenary in 2019 guides our engagement of Laudato Si’ 

 
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