Ultimate Commitment

Even today, on the eve of 2010, Catholics around the world are shedding their blood to spread the Gospel and care for the poor.

A review of bulletins issued this year by Fides, the news agency of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, shows that at least 21 priests, Religious and laypeople suffered violent deaths in the past 12 months in missionary territories in the Americas, Africa and Asia.

They include a youth minister priest in Brazil, killed by a gang of teenagers; a human rights activist priest in the Philippines; a French missionary priest who’d spent nearly four decades in Africa; and a 40-year-old catechist killed by guerrillas in Colombia.

While not strictly martyrs — more often than not they were the victims of violent crime rather than persecution for their faith — they nevertheless made the ultimate sacrifice in their effort to witness to Christ and his Gospel.

“In profoundly different situations and contexts, according to their own talents, attitudes and with their own limits,” the evangelization congregation said in an annual report at the end of last year, “all of them consecrated their lives to the unique mission of proclaiming and witnessing to the love of Christ, who died and rose again for the salvation of mankind.”

“Without heroics or solemn proclamations, they did not hesitate to put their lives at risk each day in many different contexts of suffering, poverty and tension,” it said.

Over the next few pages, you’ll find more on the stories of 2009’s “martyrs” for the Gospel. Most of the information comes directly from Fides with the kind assistance of Stefano Lodigiani. The agency notes the number of Church workers killed is likely much higher; this list includes only those who were reported to the evangelization congregation.

Why this review?

Simple. It is an opportunity to thank God for the witness of those who have made the sacrifice of their lives for the faith. Just as importantly, its an impetus to resolve, at the start of a new year, to be more courageous in demonstrating our own faith.

John Norton is OSV editor. 

Consolata Missionary Father Giuseppe Bertaina

Died: Jan. 16

Location: Nairobi, Kenya

The Italian-born priest was rector and administrator of the Consolata Institute of Philosophy in Kenya’s capital. A woman and two men — one of whom was a former student of the institute — told the porter they had an appointment with Father Bertaina, went into his office, and beat, bound and gagged him. He died from asphyxiation. When the criminals were caught, they had several checkbooks of the seminary.

The 81-year-old priest had worked in Kenya for more than 50 years, mostly in education. Early in his missionary days, he started two elementary schools. He founded the Consolata Institute of Philosophy in 1992, determined to make it a world-class program. It now draws students from all across Africa.

He also spent years in ministry to Langata prison. “For 20 years he diligently prepared his Swahili homilies, acting always as if the prison were his most important assignment,” said a confrere. “For 20 years he was for the prisoners not only the de-facto chaplain, but a friend, a counselor, a provider and a father.”

Father Lionel Sham

Died: March 7

Location: Mohlakeng, in the Archdiocese of Johannesburg, South Africa

The 66-year-old priest was abducted from his rectory and later found dead. 


Father Juan Gonzalo Aristizabal Isaza

Died: Feb. 22

Location: Medillín, Colombia

The 62-year-old psychologist-priest was found dead inside his car, which had been abandoned on the state highway that links the city with the north. Preliminary hypotheses say that he died of asphyxiation.

Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe Velez said, “We are filled with grief for this murder here in Medellín of Father Juan Gonzalo Aristizabal, who served as government chaplain when I had the honor of being the governor of Antioquia.”

A statement by the bishops and priests of Medillín said the priest was “known for his spirit of charity toward those most in need, his pastoral dedication, intelligence and generosity with others.”

“As the Catholic Church, we strongly reject these acts that go against human life and against the progress of society and the work of evangelization that a priest carries out on a daily basis, as a service to others,” they said.

Father Daniel Matsela Mahula

Died: Feb. 27

Location: Bloemhof, in the Diocese of Klerksdorp, South Africa

Killed by four hitchhikers.

Father Revocat Gahimbare

Died: March 8

Location: Karuzi, Burundi

A day after his 39th birthday, the priest was shot dead by four bandits dressed as policemen who had broken into the monastery of the Bene Maria Sisters. Father Gahimbare had gone in to defend the sisters.

Father Ramiro Ludeña

Died: March 20

Location: Recife, Brazil

A native of Toledo, Spain, Father Ludeña, 64, was shot to death as he was getting out of a car in a parking lot. He had worked for 34 years with an association for children living on the streets.

A 15-year-old boy confessed to the crime and to having used a .12-caliber rifle. The adolescent explained that he had tried to rob the priest, when he was in his car, and that he shot him because he thought the priest was looking for a weapon to defend himself.

The priest worked for the movement “Apoyo a los Meninos de Rua (Mamer)” helping the youth in the metropolitan area of Recife. According to friends of the priest, Father Ludeña was very loved and appreciated and had never received threats. He was described as tranquil, but “energetic and determined,” in promoting the work of the organization.

The organization’s president, Rose Guareschi, said, “Working with teenagers is always tough, but in spite of this, he had never received threats.”

Bishop Genival Saraiva of Palmares, the diocese where the priest was working, described him as “a priest gifted with a great social sensibility, who worked to rescue children and youth from poverty and the temptation to take up a life of crime.”

Marianhill Missionary Father Ernst Plöchl

Died: May 31

Location: Matatiele, South Africa

The 78-year-old priest had worked in South Africa for more than 40 years and ran a school with 400 students. Four men were arrested for robbing and murdering the Austrian-born missionary. Fides notes that South Africa has among the highest per capita rates of violent crime in the world, with an average of 50 people killed every day.

Sister Denise Kahambo Murahirwa

Died: Nov. 7

Location: Muresha, in the Archdiocese of Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo

Sister Denise was killed by armed men in uniform who attacked the monastery of Our Lady of Light in Muresha, which is in a remote area outside Bukavu.

Father Gisley Azevedo Gomes

Died: June 15

Location: Brazlandia, Brazil

The 31-year-old priest worked on youth issues for the Brazilian bishops’ conference, and was killed by a group of young people in an attack at night.

Jorge Humberto Echeverri Garro

Died: June 11

Location: Arauquita, Colombia

The 40-year-old catechist and professor was at a meeting of the diocesan social ministry office with Caritas Germany, the overseas aid arm of the German bishops’ conference, when a guerilla group took over part of the city, including the meeting site, and without a word of explanation, killed him.

Fides notes that teachers are common targets for Colombia’s guerilla groups.

The social ministry office of the Colombian bishops’ conference decried the murder and appealed to guerillas to respect the human rights of the civilian population.

“With renewed faith, the Church will continue in her commitment to building peace in Colombia, accompanying and strengthening the weakest and most affected by the armed conflict,” it said.

Father Evaldo Martiolo

Died: Sept. 26

Location: Diocese of Caçador, Brazil

The 33-year-old priest was killed by a young uncle-nephew team during a botched robbery. After having left the chapel and visited the house of another priest, he walked to his car, where the two young men killed him.

His body, with four bullet wounds, was found 5 kilometers outside the urban area of Cacador. The next day, the police found the killers, who still had the priest’s car, cell phone and documents. The two confessed to the crime and told police where the body of the priest was.

“His method of evangelization was friendship,” Diocesan Bishop Luiz Carlos Eccell said during the funeral celebrated in the cathedral where the priest had worked.

“Father Evaldo was a dear son, because he made friends with everyone,” he said.

Father Ruggero Ruvoletto

Died: Sept. 19

Location: Manaus, Brazil

A 52-year-old Italian Fidei Donum missionary (see sidebar), was found dead from a gunshot wound to the head, kneeling next to his bed, victim of an apparent robbery. A priest of the Diocese of Padua, Italy, he left for Brazil as a Fidei Donum missionary in 2003 for the Diocese of Itaguai in Brazil. The following year, he participated in a missionary project on the outskirts of Manaus, promoted by the local dioceses. It is an area on the border between the city and the forest, where crime is particularly intense. Father Ruggero himself recently participated in a demonstration to call for greater security. The missionary lived with a deacon, a priest and a small community of sisters.

“He was a good priest. Very beloved by the community,” said Father Danival de Oliveira, of the Archdiocese of Manaus.

Father Hidalberto Henrique Guimaraes

Died: Nov. 6

Location: Murici, in the Archdiocese of Maceió, Brazil.

A parish priest who recently earned a journalism degree, Father Guimaraes, 48, was found dead in his rectory with cuts all over his body. Police arrested two teenaged men, but as of press time the motive was still unclear.

Father Eduardo de la Fuente Serrano

Died: Feb. 14

Location: Havana, Cuba

The 61-year-old Spanish priest had worked in Cuba since 2006 as pastor of the community of Saint Clare of Assisi in the country’s capital.

His stabbed body was found in an ally behind the national zoo in northeast Havana. His car was found abandoned about 12 miles away.

The priest had begun working in Havana during the summers — substituting for local priests every July — about 10 years ago and, according to his family, was so taken with the plight of the city’s poor that he asked permission to work there permanently.

Father Mariano Arroyo

Died: July 13

Location: Havana, Cuba

The 74-year-old Spanish-born priest was found dead after being gagged, handcuffed, stabbed and partially burned in a bed in the house next to his church, in the Havana neighborhood of “Regla.”

After pastoral work in Spain and Chile, the priest had worked in Cuba since 1997, first as pastor of Our Lady of Pilar in Havana, and since 2004 as rector and pastor of the National Shrine of Nuestra Señora de la Regla in Havana. He had also worked with the Movement of Christian Workers and as director of the “Padre Felix Varela” Institute for religious studies.

Father Habacuc Hernandez Benitez Eduardo Oregón Benítez Silvestre González Cambrón

Died: June 13

Location: Ciudad de Argelia, Guerrero, Mexico

The 39-year-old vocations director for the Diocese of Altamirano was traveling with two seminarians, aged 19 and 21, to a vocations ministry meeting in Argelia in a pickup truck when, on one of the main streets of the city, another car approached them and forced them out of the truck and shot them with a 9 mm gun.

Archbishop Felipe Aguirre Franco of Acapulco said, “We become hostages in this violent confrontation of getting even with those above us; this is also contagious among people, because they imitate these violent acts and they want to live as if it were a jungle.”

He said that in that part of the country, the law of settling differences and getting even is with a gun and bloodshed. “It is a society that is ‘Cain-izing’ itself with brothers killing brothers.” He said the armed forces are “not enough” in resolving the problems of drug trafficking and violence.

Father Cecilio Lucero

Died: Sept. 6

Location: North Samar, Philippines

Revered as a defender of the down-trodden and an activist for human rights, the priest was traveling in his car when he was stopped by over 30 people who opened fire on him. Two other people were in the vehicle with him and were severely wounded.

Father Lucero, 48, was the head of the Commission for Human Rights of the Diocese of Catarman and had started various initiatives for defending the poor and denouncing the abuse of power.

He also had relatives among the politicians of the Province of North Samar. This fact, investigators say, could be linked to the homicide, in a sort of revenge or political warning sign.

In the region of North Samar, there have been several murders of politicians, journalists, social workers and pastoral workers who have raised their voices in defense of human rights of the most down-trodden, and accused the powerful of corruption.

In the last six months, there have been 18 homicides.

Father Lucero was buried on Sept. 14, the 22nd anniversary of his priestly ordination.

Missionary of Africa Father Louis Blondel

Died: Dec. 6

Location: Diepsloot, South Africa

After 37 years of working in Africa, French-born Father Louis Blondel, 70, was shot to death during what appeared to be a burglary of his rectory. He was a member of the Missionaries of Africa, also known as the White Fathers because of their distinctive white robes.

According to Fides, three young men broke into the priest’s home through a window and stole the cell phones of a Canadian confrere and another person sleeping in the house. They then opened the main door to let a fourth man in and proceeded to Father Blondel’s room. He opened the door and was killed immediately with a single gunshot. The intruders left with two computers.

The priest founded the parish where he was killed about a year ago. It is in a poverty-ridden township, home to about 300,000 people, that is located between Johannesburg and Pretoria.

Before moving to Diepsloot, Father Blondel had worked in Johannesburg, where he founded Cordis, an archdiocesan outreach group, and worked on various development projects in a slum district of the city. He had taught philosophy in a seminary, and served twice as superior of his order’s province for southern Africa. He also spent 15 years in Tanzania.

According to Zenit, Father Sean O’Leary, superior of the congregation in South Africa, said in a press release: “Louis returns to his maker as a true pioneering missionary who dedicated all his life to the poorest of the poor. He remains one of our unsung heroes.”

Father Jeremiah Roche

Died: Dec. 11

Location: Kericho, Kenya

The 68-year-old Irish priest had spent more than four decades working in Kenya, most recently completing construction of a new church building. He planned to retire next year to his home parish in County Limerick, according to Irish news accounts.

Instead, the Kiltegan Father missionary was murdered, apparently by robbers, during a burglary of the home in which he lived alone, about 150 miles from the capital, Nairobi. His parishioners discovered him after he failed to arrive for 6 a.m. Mass. He was lying in bed, bound, with machete wounds to his head.

Father Daniel Cizimya Nakamaga

Died: Dec. 6

Location: Kabare, in the Archdiocese of Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo

The 51-year-old priest was killed in his rectory during a home invasion at about 2 a.m. Armed men pulled security bars off the windows, entered the house and broke into the priest’s room, where they killed him. A statement from the archdiocese noted the non-randomness of the violence, suggesting it was part of a coordinated attack on the local Church.

In recent months violence has affected men and women of the Church, as well as journalists and human rights activists.

In October, the gravity of the situation in Bukavu forced Archbishop Francois Xavier Maroy Rusengo of Bukavu to leave the work of the Special Assembly for Africa of the Synod of Bishops and return to his archdiocese.

First South African Saint? (sidebar)

A Catholic convert who was killed because of his outspoken opposition to the common South African practice of witchcraft may become the country's first saint.

In 1990, Benedict Daswa, 43 was attacked and beaten to death with stones and clubs, days after refusing to pay a tax to fund a rite intended to expel several "witches."

According to the bishops' conference, Daswa grew up in a traditional family that belonged to the small tribe of the Lemba. He converted to Catholicism while he was studying to be a schoolteacher.

He soon realized that witchcraft went against the Catholic faith. From that moment, he took a strong stance against the practice, affirming that these beliefs had been the cause of death of innocent people unjustly accused of practicing it.

Daswa also fought against the use of false medicines and charms for protection from the evil eye, and spread the practice of sports and other activities.

The Diocese of Tzaneen recently completed its part of the beatification process, sending 850 pages of documentation to the Vatican after a five-year investigation and multiple interviews.

First service (sidebar)

Missionary commitment remains the first service that the Church owes to humanity today to guide and evangelize the cultural, social and ethical transformations; to offer Christ’s salvation to the people of our time in so many parts of the world who are humiliated and oppressed by endemic poverty, violence and the systematic denial of human rights.— Pope Benedict XVI, Message for World Mission Sunday 2007

‘Fidei Donum’ priests (sidebar)

In 1957, Pope Pius XII issued an encyclical on the state of Catholic missions, particularly in Africa. It was called “Fidei Donum” (The Gift of Faith).

In it, he appealed to bishops to send priests on a temporary basis to help out the missions in Africa. Those who go are known as “Fidei Donum” priests.

Pope John Paul II, in his 1991 encyclical Redemptoris Missio (“Mission of Redemption”), called the program “effective and fruitful.”

“Fidei Donum priests are a unique sign of the bond of communion existing among the Churches,” he said. “They make a valuable contribution to the growth of needy ecclesial communities, while drawing from them freshness and liveliness of faith.”

And, as Pope Benedict XVI noted in his 2007 message for World Mission Sunday, some make the ultimate missionary sacrifice: Two of the priests featured on these pages were Fidei Donum priests.

“Throngs of priests, after leaving their native communities, have devoted their apostolic energy to the service of communities which have sometimes only recently come into being in poor and developing areas. Among these priests are many martyrs who have combined with the witness of their words and apostolic dedication the sacrifice of their lives,” the pope said. “Nor can we forget the many men and women Religious and lay volunteers who, together with the priests, spared no effort to spread the Gospel to the very ends of the earth.”

Who is sending priests? (sidebar)

Fides, the news agency of the Vatican’s evangelization congregation, has compiled statistics on priests “loaned” to missionary territories under the Fidei Donum program. The information for the sending countries is incomplete but here is a representative sampling, from 2007. The U.S. bishops conference could not immediately provide American data.

Italy - 566

Poland -300

Slovakia - 200

Germany -175

France -145

South Korea -31

Switzerland -29

England -21

Holland -8

Faithful witnesses (sidebar)

A brief surge in killings of missionaries in Africa at the beginning of December prompted Pope Benedict XVI to mention the fact at a Sunday Angelus address.

“This week I received sad news from certain countries in Africa about the murder of four missionaries: the priests, Father Daniel Cizimya, Father Louis Blondel and Father Gerry Roche, and Sister Denise Kahambu,” he said Dec. 13.

“They were faithful witnesses of the Gospel, which they knew how to proclaim, even at the risk of their own lives. As I express nearness to their families and communities, who are grieving, I invite everyone to join in my prayer that the Lord welcome them into his house, console those who weep for them and bring them reconciliation and peace with his coming,” the pope said.