Armando’s Journey to Guatemala

(para leer en español, haz clíc aquí)



When it was time to leave, we left and continued on our way up to Jerusalem …
When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers and sisters received us warmly…
Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.
When they heard this, they praised God.
(Acts 21:5-20) 

Motivated by the 15th anniversary of the martyrdom of Mons. Juan Gerardi Conedera, various organizations decided to recognize Sister Raquel Saravia with an award for her many years of work on behalf of youth, the poor, and indigenous Guatemalans. Naturally, as SICSAL, wanted to be part of this tribute, so we were pleased to accept the invitation from Sheny Vásquez and that’s how I ended up traveling to Guatemala to be part of the commemoration.

As you can read in the following paragraphs, traveling to Guatemala carries a great significance for me; it is like my second homeland. Significant roots of my own person lie there, which is why it is difficult for me to write the following lines without referring to my life. I ask for preemptive pardon for this.

The first time I went to Guatemala, in 1961, it was to participate in the perpetual profession of vows of my older brother, Balta, to the Marist Brothers; my brother’s decision, the atmosphere of fraternity among the brothers, and the figure of Brother Remigio (a French missionary who, at 90 years old, exuded peace, serenity, and joy) notably influenced that I began to walk the same path and, two years later, in 1963 – half a century ago! – entered said formation house. Paradoxically, various decades later (1986), in this same house, and as a consequence of the pastoral work with indigenous people displaced by the conflict (an experience in which they had a greater influence in me than I did in them), I began to walk the opposite path and withdrew from the Congregation. It was during this process of discernment, on the morning of November 16, 1989 (in the same house), that I received the shocking news of the murder of the 6 Jesuit priests and of Elba and Celina, their collaborators. For me, it was an eloquent sign that the hour had arrived to return to my homeland, starting then as a layperson, and now a little later, married, in the effort of service to the Christian Base Communities. I think God has been able to write something straight with my crooked lines.

For any visitor that arrives to Guatemala, especially – as in my case – if you’re returning after a number of years, one of the first impressions is the visible wealth; coming in on the bus on the highway that comes from El Salvador, one is literally struck dumb upon seeing, on the mountains taht surround the capital, the impressive construction (superhighways, housing, buildings, luxury apartments…). Of course, on an immediate level, on the sidewalks and at stoplights, you see the misery, the poverty of our Central American cities: indigenous women selling all variety of things, boys and girls in the streets, shacks, alcoholism… I had the opportunity to get on a few public busses, and there the years’ difference is not much: people squeezed in, worried faces, almost everyone hurrying, because the routes between the home and the workplace are long, and these kilometers are to be run if you are to arrive on time to work or home in the afternoon, before the unwritten curfew imposed by the violence in the collective minds of our peoples gets dangerous.

armando guate 1I was also struck by the existence of “mega churches” and their grand infrastructures: temples that look more like giant gymnasiums, and with enough space for the thousands of faithful to park their cars. It doesn’t suffice to say that these are simple “sects” or “the fruit of counterinsurgency strategies from the eighties” or to talk about an “alienating discourse.” Some have started to truly be churches, not only, or not so much because of their large membership or because of their impressive infrastructure, but rather because they occupy an important place in society. They influence the mentality of a good part of the population and they respond in an important way to the needs of the people. A minority have begun to question the sociopolitical causes of this system, are growing to understand their role in social transformation, and insinuate some prophetic postures. It wouldn’t be strange if, in the future (hopefully soon!) some could live an historic process of conversion and some Oscar Romero could come of it. I think the combination of the Gospels, poverty, humility, and openness to the Spirit can provoke surprises of which we have many examples throughout history and exceptional cases to which we have been witnesses in the last half-century. On a personal level, I believe that, also, many of us can give evidence of this irruption of the Spirit: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (Jn 3:8).

Together with the mega-churches, the mega-malls are also surprising. There, life is marked by the doctrine of consumerism and family remittances [from outside Guatemala]. The anniversary of Monseñor Gerardi or the sentencing of Ríos Mont goes unnoticed, forgotten, and unimportant.

armando gaute 2The tribute to Sister Raquel was held on Thursday, April 25, in the afternoon, in the St. Sebastian park. Before the event, in the parking lot of the parish house, I dedicated a space for prayer and meditation. There, on April 26, 1998, Monseñor Gerardi was violently assassinated, two days after presenting the report “GUATEMALA, NEVER AGAIN: a inter-diocesan Project for the Recuperation of Historic Memory” (REMHI), in which that assassinations and human rights violations of more than 55,000 victims are documented, 75% of victims being indigenous Mayans, and 95= of the violations the responsibility of the Guatemalan army and civil patrols. This parking lot is now a memorial dedicated to Monseñor Gerardi, with beautiful and intense paintings, photographs, and other signs that make this a holy place, sanctified by the blood of the bishop-martyr.

armando guate 3I remember that I was able to meet Monseñor Gerardo on two occasions: the first when he was bishop of Quiché, at the end of the seventies, where he inspired enfleshed and dynamic pastoral work and where the repressive violence was intensifying. The second time was ten years later in the capital of Guatemala, I think he was already an auxiliary bishop, and I was accompanied by a group of indigenous people who wanted to present him with a few petitions. On both occasions, I remember him for his heftiness, his paused way of speaking, his friendly and serene character, and his capacity for listening.

armando guate 4During the tribute to Sister Raquel, I had the pleasure of delivering a simple but significant recognition in the name of all SICSAL, which consisted of an album affectionately decorated by young girls in the Christian Base Communities containing 25 messages of solidarity and appreciation, as well as historic memories of many other people in the diverse parts of the work in which our SICAL network is found. They are messages sent by you all in the last three years, since word was sent that she was seriously ill. There are some more extensive messages, like those José Manuel Mira, Emilie Smith, Guido De Schrijver, Marta Viscarra, in which they remember moments of courage shared; others, like Julín, were more poetic. Mexico sent some endearing photos and a very emotional collective letter.

The album also contained photos of many other moments: form the first years of SICSAL, with Mons. Sergio Méndez Arceo and Leticia Rentería –among others–; of her exile in Mexico, visits to Puerto Rico, El Salvador, and other countries; the most recent Assemblies and other moments of her life and the trajectory of SICSAL. Many thanks to Hernan, Guido, Maricarmen, Magaly and José Manuel for the beautiful photos that you sent!

Also, I included the letter of solidarity that we wrote to her in the most recent Assembly in Mexico (2012) and the “official” message of gratitude from the Directive Council, written for this event.

armando guate 5I found Sister Raquel to be very calm, smiling, lucid, and animated; however, of course, the effects of her illness and the years were notable. She asked me to thank each one of you all for your affection and solidarity and to communicate her trust in your prayers.

At the end of the event, she shared a few words of thanks and about Monseñor Gerardi (you can see a part of her speech in the video below).

Mons. Rodolfo Valenzuela, the president of the Bishop’s Conference, was also present, along with many people from CONFREGUA, from ODHAG, from the “Gerardi Movement”, Christian Base Communities, and other organizations.

The first time that I met Raquel was in now-long-past 1971. I was in my last year of formation, in that same Marist residence that I mentioned at the beginning of this narration. Raquel was organizing, in those years, “insertion experiences” for students from the private Belgian high school in the indigenous communities of the Quiché Diocese, the diocese of Monseñor Gerardi. These experiences changed the mentalities, the choices, and the lives of many of these young women. A strong friendship grew among us, young religious men and women, including space for sharing new paths and ideas about religious life post-Vatican II and post-Medellín. I remember a sweet story, when we went to sing a serenade to Raquel on her birthday (March 30, if I remember correctly. Brother Marcelino Ganzaraín was our director then, and I was very happy to run into him, too, at this event, along with other brothers, among them Brother Santiago Otero, an old and close companion, now the biographer of Monseñor Gerardi and historian of the martirial Church of Guatemala.

armando guate 6The following day, Friday, April 26, the transferral of the remains of Mons. Próspero Penados del Barrio and of Mons. Juan Gerardi (Archbishop and Auxilary Bishop of Guatemala, respectively) from the Crypt to St. Sebastian’s Chapel in the Cathedral of Guatemala. It was a very solemn ceremony, dignified and profoundly significant. Many bishops, almost 50 priests, almost a hundred seminarians, numerous religious men and women, and a good amount of the Guatemalan people were present. The Cathedral was not big enough for so many people.

Once the Eucharist was over, Mons. Rodolfo Valenzuela read the statement from the Bishop’s Conference, “Peace Be With You,” which you can read in full in Spanish here (Fernando Bermúdez also recently sent it via email). It seemed to be to be a very important statement, and I invite you to read it.

Next, we formed an emotional procession with the two coffins throughout the central park (the Plaza of the Constitution), the streets covered by colorful “alfombras,” and many Catholic schools formed a pathway of honor: see the brief video from the “La Hora” newspaper below).

armando guate 7

armando guate 8I couldn’t help but remember and compare, with sadness, the great difference between this beautiful celebration and that of a couple years ago in El Salvador, when, in a totally private way, behind closed doors, almost in secret, the mortal remains fo Monseñor Romero were moved, without a presence, much less participation, on behalf of the people, this people of whom he said:  “With this people, it is not difficult to be a good pastor. It is a people the call to their service those of us who have been called to defend their rights and to be their voice.(11/18/79) and whose presence among his people made him proclaim his “Magnificat”: “I am happy to be among my people and feel the affection from all these who see in the Church, through their bishop, hope” (09/25/1977).  It was this empathy, of Monseñor Romero with his people that others wanted to divide, which they haven’t been able to do, as those of you who have been present at the big anniversaries can testify.

armando guate 9

armando guate 10Here, in Guatemala, things were very different. The bishop-martyr, Juan Gerardi, got mixed in with his people, that people and that Church for whom he gave his life. The procession had a sense of “the triumphant arrival in Jerusalem” and, in the context of the season of Easter, certainly “our hearts were on fire,” like the experience of the disciples of Emmaus. We hear, once again, the profound voice of our conscience: “Don’t be alarmed… You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. HE HAS RISEN! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.  But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”” (Mc 16,6-7)

armando guate 11In that way, sent out on a mission, we cried out: May our martyrs encourage us and give us strength to meet in this day the challenges and present tasks, because “God saves in the history of every people” (Mons. Romero, 12/11/1977)!

This homage and ecclesial recognition, both popular and public, of Monseñor Gerardi took place in a context of the trial of two men responsible for massacres, General Efraín Ríos Mont, intellectual author if the death 1,771 indigenous Ixil people in collective killings perpetrated by the Army between March of 1982 and August of 1983 and his former intelligence chief, José Rodríguez. There has been quite a bit of legal sophistry taking place to try to delay, postpone, and even annul the proceedings, and groups who may have been involved in the acts are campaigning, denying that there was genocide at all. In this context, to celebrate the figure of Monseñor Gerardi is to reaffirm his report and make justice for the victims. We hope that this trial and condemning sentence can set a precedent in Latin America; for example, in El Salavdor against the unjust amnesty law that impedes advances against impunity.

In the afternoon of the same day, I had another impactful experience. I visited the Marist residence (the same that I’ve mentioned before). Now, it’s the house for older Brothers, and over the course of a few hours, I had a deep lived meditation experience about the significance of life and death because I found myself with many men what I met, in another time, in the midst of life and strength, who are now almost out of life and strength. It was, moreover, a look into my near future, since, at 63 years old (as luck would have it, I was celebrating by birthday that day!) I have begun to feel the weight of my years. In my interior, with those Brothers, with Sister Raquel, and with the psalmist, the following prayer spontaneously emerged: “Do not cast me away when I am old; do not forsake me when my strength is gone… Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come” (Psalm 71(70), 9:18) and, with them, I dared protest: What good will come if I die? What good will come if I go down into the grave?  Can the dust of my dead body praise you? Can it tell how faithful you are?” (Sal 30(29):10 or 88(87):11-13).

One more time, thank you, Guatemala! And many thanks to the Marist Brothers of the Liceo who received me and hosted me these two days with much fraternity!

Upon my return to El Salvador, life continued with all its paradoxes. My family waited for me to celebrate a triple birthday: that of Azucena, my youngest daughter, of Flor, my wife, and my own. At the same time, we received bad news of the death of Chavelina, a cousin I have always been very close to, a very simple woman, without a doubt an “anawin”.

Armando Márquez Ochoa
International Christian Service in Solidarity with Latin America (SICSAL)

“Fifteen years have already passed. We all know that I am ill… but because of the testimony of Mons. Gerardi, because of that testimony, we have to overcome the pessimism that strikes us these days, that makes us fearful and frustrated…

Mons. Gerardi spoke a prophetic Word, and without understanding that as central, his fundamental mission and martirial destiny cannot be understood. To be a prophet means to be a current, concrete, and extraordinary example of the ways in which God makes manifest God’s will in history… the concrete content of the prophetic word denounces and unmasks sin and those responsible for it in this society which is, at the same time, the Word of God: love, mercy and justice.”

Words of Mother Raquel upon receiving her recognition.
25 April 2013

armando guate 12


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