Murders won’t stop Mexican missionary work: priest
By Michael Swan
The Catholic Register
Photo Caption: Father Ron MacDonnell. (The Catholic Register)
As Mexican priests watch the death toll among clergy rise in their country, their first concern remains the ordinary people who suffer through the murderous reign of drug gangs, according to a Canadian priest who has seen the effect of the killings first-hand.
Father Ron MacDonell led 70 priests through a five-day silent retreat last fall in Guadalajara, Mexico, during which they learned that three more priests were murdered in the country.
At least 16 Catholic priests have been killed since December 2012, Mexico’s Catholic Multimedia Centre reports. The latest is Father Joaquin Hernandez Sifuentes, whose body was discovered Jan. 11 in Parras de la Fuente, 1,000 kilometres north of Mexico City.
The country has been besieged by violence and an army-led war on drugs and gangs that has directly killed between 66,000 and 81,000 Mexicans since 2006, according to an April 2015 report from the University of San Diego’s Trans Border Institute.
Father MacDonell said members of the Mexican missionary order he joined on retreat remained calm after receiving news of the murdered priests.
“They’re not panicked about it. They’re priests. They made (their) options,” said the Scarboro Missions’ priest. “We were there to pray and we always find strength in prayer. Sometimes the persecution makes people even stronger. It clarifies your option and your choice to follow Jesus and to announce His dream, to announce His vision.”
News that the bodies of Father Alejo Jimenez and Father Jose Juarez were found in a ditch near their Catemaco parish, 530 km southeast of Mexico City, hit the first day of the retreat for members of the Misioneros de Guadalupe (the Guadalupe Missionaries). On the last day of the retreat, they were told of the death of Father Jose Alfredo Lopez Guillen in his parish in Michoacán, 400 km west of Mexico City.
For Mexican priests, the idea that priests can be a target in one of the most fervently Catholic countries in the world is sometimes shocking, said Father MacDonell. But the violence is what happens when the drug trade is the best paying and sometimes the only job available.
“I think it comes back to justice,” Father MacDonell said. “What are the conditions of life, of living, of work that will give a person dignity? If you have a means of supporting your family or working that gives you human dignity, then you’re not going to choose the way of violence. It goes back to the structures of social injustice and poverty.”
Priests and journalists have been targeted because often they challenge the drug trade and condemn it.
“Sometimes (priests are targeted) because they speak up against the drug violence and other times the drug gangs just want to show who is boss,” said Father MacDonell. “The context was a silent retreat…. It was just lamentable and we prayed for these brothers. There’s a market in North America and Europe (for drugs). The tie-in is that. So anyone who is going to denounce the sale of drugs or drug use, or talk about it, are open to persecution.”
But priests don’t face the violence alone.
“All of Mexican society is exposed. Priests are not spared from violence,” Saltillo Bishop Raul Vera Lopez said earlier this month. The New York Times reports two per cent of murder cases are successfully prosecuted in Mexico.
Father MacDonell began his life as a missionary in Mexico’s southern Chiapas state, serving as a lay missionary in the time of legendary Bishop Samuel Ruiz, a participant in the Second Vatican Council who was closely identified with liberation theology. After preaching the retreat in Guadalajara, Father MacDonell revisited Chiapas, where he served 30 years ago.
“The Mexican Church stands for peace and justice,” he said.