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Slain bishop gave voice back to Mayans

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Guatemala City

When I asked Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera last year if he had forgiven the military officials who slaughtered his pastoral agents and tried to kill him when he served as bishop of the diocese of El Quiché, Gerardi easily answered, “Yes.”

Seated amid the ancient furniture that filled his dark office in Guatemala City, Gerardi quickly added, “It’s difficult, I know. Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting the monstrosities of that time. But if God forgives someone, then that person has to forgive others, although at times we remember, and that memory makes us angry.”

Gerardi, who was murdered April 26 outside his residence, had a lasting memory of the violence against the church and indigenous people of the highlands province where he served as bishop. The wide assumption here and outside the country is that Gerardi was killed because of his work to keep the memory alive.

The violence became so severe in 1980 that Gerardi took the unprecedented step of closing the diocese rather than watch as the army picked off more of his priests. It was the intense memory of that time that motivated Gerardi, during the last months of his life, to put the final touches on a report about the civil war’s violence. He simply refused to forget, and his April 24 report -- “Guatemala: Never Again!” -- described in detail the assassinations and massacres, many of which occurred in Quiché, the scene of some of the most intense violence of the war (NCR, May 8).

The testimony of almost 7,000 people, most of them indigenous Maya, formed the foundation of Gerardi’s final report.

It was as if the bishop had the last laugh. On the last afternoon of his life, according to Ronalth Ochaeta, director of the archdiocesan human rights office, Gerardi was “brimming over with joy.” Ochaeta, who ate dinner with Gerardi that fateful evening, said Gerardi “felt pastorally realized for having concluded the project.”

Just two days after releasing the report, Gerardi “was dreaming of new ideas and new projects that would help rebuild the social fabric of the country. The great project of his life was the reconciliation of this country.”

The 75-year-old Gerardi, the grandson of Italian immigrants, spent several hours with his family and friends that day. He told a few jokes. “His jokes were usually pretty bad,” said Juan Carlos Cordoba, a priest in Antigua who was a close friend. “I don’t know where he got them, but they almost always involved priests and doctors.” Two young nephews were there. They called him “Uncle Mocho” -- a title they’d invented when young because they couldn’t pronounce Monseñor. Several friends his own age called him Juanito -- “little John” -- though he was a big man. Younger associates always addressed him as Monseñor.

Following his cheerful evening with family and friends, Gerardi returned to his simple quarters in the Church of San Sebastian, three blocks from the National Palace in downtown Guatemala City. Waiting for him was an assailant who repeatedly smashed Gerardi’s head with an eight-pound chunk of cement.

Twenty priests had been killed by the military in the past, but never a bishop. In peacetime, few would have thought it possible.

Fr. Ricardo Falla, a Jesuit anthropologist who first got to know Gerardi in the 1970s, said the manner in which Gerardi was killed is significant. He contrasted it to the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador. “Romero was killed with a bullet to the heart, as if to kill off the love and the passion that drove people to struggle,” Falla told NCR. “Gerardi was killed by someone who smashed his brain, as if they were trying to wipe out his memory.”

They didn’t succeed. The assassination has provoked renewed interest in what the church had to say about the violence and who caused it. In the wake of Gerardi’s death, archdiocesan officials increased the press run on the four volumes of the church’s report from 3,000 copies to 20,000 copies.

Finding out what’s in the report isn’t easy. Only 100 copies of the first two volumes of the four-volume report were available when the report was made public, and those have been photocopied extensively to meet the needs of journalists and diplomats.

Wrenching testimonies

It is not easy reading. Besides the statistical breakdown about who did what during the war, there are dozens of selections from the testimonies. “Many of the women were pregnant, and they cut open the stomach of one of them who was eight months pregnant. They took out the creature and played with it as if it were a football,” said one survivor of a 1981 army incursion.

In a section titled “Mechanisms of Horror,” the report guides the reader through the maze of death squads and other clandestine organizations spawned by the military. Besides the organization of hit squads and descriptions of domestic spying, the report describes how novice assassins often practiced their skills on street people, conducting “social cleansing” in preparation for more political jobs.

Testimonies of former soldiers relate how troops were trained in a step-by-step process for conducting massacres. How military agents carried out “disappearances” -- characterized in the report as a particularly vicious form of social control -- is also described in morbid detail.

The report relates how civil defense patrols were designed to extend the army’s reach in the countryside and induce civilians to kill each other. Moving testimonies of refugees and the internally displaced are given prominence, and the disastrous effects of the war on indigenous cultures are discussed at length.

Gerardi was well-acquainted with indigenous cultures. His first episcopal appointment was in Cobán from 1967 to 1974, where he helped implement the church’s newfound commitment to indigenous ministry with the Q’eqchi Maya. In 1974, he moved to Quiché, where the church was reaching out in new ways to the almost 1 million K’iche’ Maya.

The diocese was home to a rapidly expanding network of Catholic Action activists. Originally brought to the region in the 1950s by Sacred Heart priests from Spain, who sought to form an ecclesiastical bulwark against advancing world communism, Catholic Action took root in the diocese. By the time of Gerardi’s arrival, however, the group’s mission had changed. It became a growing force for indigenous empowerment and village development.

For military officials headquartered at the regional base just south of Santa Cruz del Quiché, a stark highland town where Gerardi’s cathedral anchored the central plaza, Catholic Action was just one more subversive group. So they ordered the systematic assassination of catechists and other Catholic Action leaders. In 1976, stepping up its attack on what it considered church-sponsored subversion, the army started killing priests, beginning with William Woods, a Maryknoll missionary from the United States who worked developing agricultural cooperatives in the far north of Gerardi’s diocese.

Until this time Gerardi had been a quiet, reflective man, not given to taking dramatic stands. “He was an indecisive man for a long time,” said Falla. “You could see it in how he talked. He’d say 20 words without saying anything, because he didn’t know what to say.” At the same time, he was apparently making an assessment of the crisis in Guatemala. “He was intelligent. He read everything that was written about what was happening in the country, and he thought a lot about it,” Falla said. “He was sort of like Hamlet, very intelligent but also indecisive.”

The pressure of accelerating repression motivated Gerardi to leave behind the relative comfort of his Hamlet-like study and publicly express his frustration and anger about what was happening. As massacres took place in Soch, Rosario, Chola, San Pablo el Baldio and countless other villages, the bishop finally knew what to say and started lambasting the army.

Gerardi made at least 10 trips to the military base near Santa Cruz del Quiché to demand a stop to the killings and disappearances. He traveled to the capital in 1980 to speak with the minister of the interior, Donald Alvarez, and the head of the army high command, Rene Mendoza. According to written church accounts of that period, Gerardi told the pair that by “attacking the civilian population so much, you are doing the guerrillas’ work for them, increasing support for the guerrillas.”

The bishop told the two officials -- both named in the recent church report as among those who directed death squad activities at the time -- that “the people believe that the guerrillas are their friends and the army their enemy.”

Falla claimed that Gerardi had “a loathing for the military,” yet that didn’t translate into an automatic admiration for the insurgents. “Gerardi wasn’t pro-guerrilla. Placed between the army and the guerrillas, however, he had a lot more sympathy for the guerrillas. But he never helped them with either words nor actions,” Falla said.

In an interview with me last year, Gerardi recalled, “At one moment, perhaps there was more in common with the thinking of the guerrillas than with the thinking of the army. But we couldn’t share everything with the guerrillas. We couldn’t accept the guerrillas as a solution to the problems. We couldn’t accept their methods as ethical.”

Such subtlety was lost on the capital city elites concerned with the threat of international communism, among them Cardinal Mario Casariego, the archbishop of Guatemala. Casariego, who died in 1983, was a close friend of the military.

The conservative wing of the church blamed Gerardi for provoking problems between church and state. Yet the bishop ignored such criticism, preoccupied with mounting violence in his diocese.

In mid-1980, two of Gerardi’s priests were assassinated. And then on July 18, a young Catholic arrived on a bicycle to warn that army assassins were waiting to ambush Gerardi when he traveled to nearby San Antonio Ilotenango to celebrate Mass. It was the last straw. Gerardi told his priests the next day, “It is not possible to work here anymore. They will kill all of us.” Associates of Gerardi said the bishop felt he had no other choice.

In spite of Casariego, the episcopal conference backed Gerardi’s decision, stating that the violence in Quiché had “made impossible all evangelical and pastoral labor.” The conference dispatched Gerardi to Rome, where he briefed the pope on the situation. The pope sent him home to reopen the diocese, no matter what. As Gerardi was traveling back to Central America, the pope released a letter blaming Guatemala’s violence on social injustice and calling on government officials to take responsible action.

When the bishop got back home, he wasn’t welcome. According to subsequent news reports, as an army hit squad waited outside the airport to kill Gerardi, immigration officials interrogated him for two hours and then did him the favor of refusing him admittance. He flew off to four years of exile in Costa Rica.

Falla recalled visiting Gerardi in Costa Rica in 1982. He went there to convince Gerardi to join a group of celebrities who were forming what Falla called “a civilian screen for the guerrillas.” Yet Gerardi would have nothing to do with it, even from exile. “He wanted to maintain a very clear distinction between what was political and what was ecclesiastical,” Falla said. “And he was very suspicious of the left trying to manipulate him.”

Falla said that although Gerardi was removed geographically from Guatemala’s western highlands, he still felt close in spirit. “He thought a lot about Quiché,” Falla said. “He mourned it. Being forced to close the diocese had broken his life.”

By 1984, Guatemala had started to change. The worst of the violence was over. Sensitive to world opinion, the army took the first meager steps toward democratization. It seemed safe for Gerardi to come home.

Yet there would be no return to Quiché, not for more than another decade. Gerardi stayed in the capital, directing the ministry of the church in the marginal slums burgeoning with thousands of families displaced by the war. As the peace process got slowly underway, Gerardi helped mediate between the government and the guerrillas. By the end of the decade, he had founded a human rights office for the archdiocese, a carefully selected group of lay people and former religious whose diligence and aggressiveness would set a standard for such work in Guatemala.

According to Sandra Sánchez, the executive secretary of the archdiocese’s social ministry, Gerardi wasn’t someone who sought out contact with the poor. “He was intelligent, a great analyst, but he wasn’t close to the poor. It was hard for him to get close to the people,” Sánchez said. “Yet that was just his style of accompaniment. He knew what was happening in the communities, he was always present in the meetings of the Christian base communities, and he understood the problems the poor were wrestling with.”

Falla said that Gerardi’s pastoral style in Quiché was similar. “He wasn’t the kind of guy to spend all night talking with the peasants,” Falla recalled. “That wasn’t his style. But he listened, he thought a lot, and he understood what was happening.”

According to María García, editor of Voces del Tiempo, a progressive Catholic magazine here, Gerardi nonetheless had begun to open up. “When he first came to the archdiocese, he was pretty timid around people,” García recalled. “But in the last couple of years he had begun to change, to become less distant. In one recent meeting with 300 pastoral agents from marginal areas, he enjoyed himself talking with them, eating with them, telling jokes. He was so happy. He seemed like a child in their midst.”

According to García, Gerardi’s change in personal style came as a result of working more directly with lay people in the archdiocese. “Those boys in the human rights office helped to humanize him,” García said.

Accused of meddling

Gerardi often came under fire for the work of the human rights office, but he didn’t back away from reflecting responsibility for the violence back onto those he considered responsible. “They seek to blame the church because we’re the ones putting our finger into the wound,” he told me last year. “We didn’t create the problems. What we’ve done is say a word about the situation, shed light on the problems, and that’s what bothers them.”

While some accused Gerardi of meddling in politics, he saw his role as helping the church live up to its postwar vocation. “The church is called to reconcile persons, to bring together different groups of people,” he told me. “Sure, that’s a difficult task, but it’s a very appropriate task for the church. And if the church doesn’t do it, no one will.”

The Historic Memory Project -- known here by its Spanish acronym REMHI -- was the vehicle Gerardi created for the church to carry out that mission. He had been concerned early on in the peace negotiations that “the people” were going to be increasingly excluded from the resolution of the war by the two parties who signed the peace accords, and thus the peace on paper would be of limited value to those who had suffered the most.

In a series of discussions with the staff of the human rights office, Gerardi came to see REMHI as a path out of the nightmare of violence. He wanted a structure to help people remember, and thus maybe, eventually, forgive. It was a process, Gerardi told me, designed to help “create new attitudes, to provoke change inside people and between people, not just to palliate the violence and the hurt that remains” after the war.

For Gerardi, who had carried with him for over a decade the pain of having closed the Quiché diocese, REMHI was clearly an opportunity to give back to the indigenous of Quiché the voice that had been taken from them during the violence. “REMHI was a way to compensate for the grief he carried,” stated Sánchez. According to García, “REMHI was a personal way for Monseñor to give back something to the people he was forced to abandon.”

Gerardi acknowledged as much when he presented REMHI’s final report on April 24. “As a church, we collectively and responsibly assumed the task of breaking the silence that thousands of victims have kept for years,” he declared. “We made it possible for them to talk, to have their say, to tell their stories of suffering and pain so they might feel liberated from the burden that has been weighing down on them for so long.”

And then, so soon afterward, he was dead. But the memory of others remained secure. He had given back the final word to the indigenous people of Quiché and so many other tortured corners of Guatemala.

When I asked Bishop Gerardi last year about the importance of martyrs for the church in Guatemala, he told me that martyrs were “a sign of testimony, a sign that our faith has really taken root in the people, that faith has been able to sustain them in difficult times and take them even to their death.”

For most Guatemalans, Gerardi was a man who survived the many dangers and snares of his country’s recent past, a nightmare during which his faith sustained him, and then -- just as the country was beginning to try to live in peace -- his faith took him to his death.

National Catholic Reporter, May 22, 1998