Who are these four priests celebrating Mass together? The third from the left is Padre Justi, missionary Franciscan priest from Italy, assigned to San Bernardino Parish in Patzún. We know that the photo is older than 1998, the year of Padre Justi’s death because that was the year that this plaque was mounted at the Hogar just outside the Franciscan’s kitchen. 1998 was the fifth year of my visits to the Patzún Missions and I am an eye witness. As I recall Padre Justi arrived in the middle 1950s, maybe 6 or 8 years after his ordination. Because of persecution of the Catholic that lasted over a century there was need for outsiders to pastor.
The 36 year civil war had not begun. Patzún was largely without electricity and there was neither municipal water distribution nor sewage system. For more than 40 years he was the Catholic Church to 50,000 who lived the municipio and aldeas that are Patzún.
At the left of the photo up top is Father Stanley Rother. Fr. Stan, considered too slow of mind to become a priest,
Padre Aplas with parishioners.
was dismissed from his first seminary. Stanley Rother, nothing if not steadfast, was admitted to Mount St. Mary Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland and was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City.
Volunteering to answer a call for missionary priests from Pope John 23, Fr. Stan, was assigned to the Tzutuhil town of Santiago Atitlan in 1963. The Tzutuhil, with no English, some Spanish and an inability to say “Stan” renamed the man Padre Francisco and Padre Aplas, using Spanish and Tzutuhil. Padre Aplas found no written Tzutuhil language so he and his parishioners created one. Into it Padre Aplas translated the four Gospels. He came to Guatemala with three other American priests and three nuns. Within 18 months all but Padre Aplas abandoned Guatemala.
Oakland Catholic girls at Santiago Atitlan Church.
Although the civil war was underway Padre Aplas was able to be an ordinary missionary parish priest. He administered the sacraments, organized the parish to form his flock into good Catholics through proper catechesis and addressed the many physical needs of the Tzutuhil as best he could. He was, as many ordinary parish priests are, loved by his flock. David Stoll’s Between Two Armies indicates that 1978 – 1982 witnessed a deadly spike of death and destruction at the hands of the Guatemalan military. What had been aldeas of the Tzutuhil, the Quiche, the Cachequel, the Ixil and other indigenous groups ceased to exist and tens of thousands of their men and boys were murdered.
 Stoll, David, Between Two Armies in the Ixil Towns of Guatemala, 1993 Columbia University Press, New York, NY, USA. Stoll’s book is excellent scholarship so, unlike a preponderance of the crud that exists on the subject, is both factual and insightful.
The government, especially wary of community organization not controlled by them, targeted both catechists and the priests who trained them. In this case “targeted” often manifest itself as taking, torturing and murdering. So it was with the catechists of Santiago Atitlan.
Padre Aplas took to having the most likely targets spend the night at the parish church, a colonial era giant built in 1547.
Padre Aplas was just one of many Catholic priests, even more catechists and nuns, and roughly 200,000 Guatemalan men, women and children who lost their lives in the 37 year conflict. We single out Padre Aplas in this blog, in part because he was an American priest, the only American priest to die in the conflict. He knew that his name was on a government death list and with the same steely resolve that Jesus Christ displayed when in the midst of His earthly ministry turned from his evangelization in Galilee, letting the apostles know it was time to keep an appointment with his sacrificial destiny – Father Stanley Rother left the safety of Oklahoma and returned to the people entrusted to his pastoral care. He explained it to his sister in one of the last letters of his life , “The shepherd cannot run at the first sign of danger”.
I came 13 years later so I wasn’t there on July 28, 1981 but my friend was. My friend saw the people who took him – big, white and speaking English. My friend was the very person who found the tortured body of Padre Aplas. My friend worked with Padre day in and day out those the last years, months and days. We see each other only occasionally yet when we do our eyes meet and hold onto each other, and the world melts away. 32 years have passed and it is as if Padre Aplas was here, alive just yesterday. The US ambassador wrote that the entire plaza in front of the Santiago Atitlan church was filled with Tzutuhil, simply sitting in the sun, mourning the martyred Padre Aplas, waiting on July 29, when he arrived. So photo at the beginning of this blog was before 28 July 1981.
The war hit Patzún too, not like Santiago Atitlan but way too hard. I believe that the people who go on mission with me only know of it from my comments if they know of it at all, but it happened. The old who live in Patzún, only the old with whom years have brought trust, do I speak about the war. It was fought on their streets, in their yards and especially in the aldeas. Everyone has a story. Everyone lost someone. Like the genocide in Rwanda it just isn’t discussed. Padre Justi and I never discussed the war. We really didn’t say much to one another.
 Things being what they are in Guatemala with the guilty still unpunished and victims being further silenced and victimized “my friend” will be all that I offer;
Padre Justi dealt with the war as best he could. He dealt with the need for the sacraments, catechesis, infrastructure, health care and education for the Cachequel as best he could. He addressed alcoholism, illegitimacy and abandonment of family as best he could. He dealt with things head on; in his homilies and in his actions. He was present to all but especially present to the poorest, the widow, the orphan the Patzunero bent double carrying firewood or water. Every day of his life he dealt with crushing poverty as best he could.
Padre Justi, in doing his best, was very, very good. When he came the Cachequel did not attend schools at all so he founded San Bernardino. By the time I came to town there were 1,300 students, crop lands rented out that paid salaries and an endowment of $200,000. He had the humility, grace and capacity to effectively work with Sara Merdes to establish the Hogar and what is now Hospital Corpus Cristi. He was responsible for the Nik-Nik water system that runs through the town. Annual vacation for Padre Justi was fund raising back home in Italy. He set up the nutrition center that to this day feeds the neediest of the young and poorest of the aged. He welcomed Fr. Al McGinnis and the first St. Ann (Waynesburg) missionaries, and later he graciously accommodate a 45 year old Philip Miller who was on his fist visit.
Father Justi asked me to move a mountain … well really a hillside. The land that is now rooms for volunteer doctors and mission people needed to be excavated and there I stood. My faith was so strong and my obedience so well formed that I laughed and walked away. Minutes later, seeing a 76 year old Padre Justi with shovel in hand, I took his place and discovered that Padre Justi, like Almighty God Himself, was not asking more than I could do. Note to missionary, volcanic soil is 100 times easier to dig than the clay of western Pennsylvania. I moved the hillside in a single afternoon!
As the story goes Padre Justi, knowing that cancer would soon take his life, asked God for someone to take his place and I was sent. That isn’t quite true. It was Danny Scott. In the last weeks of his life Padre Justi slept in a little bedroom just off the Franciscan’s dining room. It was there that he physically waited for Danny and, seeing him one last time, died peacefully within a few days. I have remained constant, returning year after year and sharing the gift of the missions with any new people who will have it. Never-the-less Danny accepted the burden from, and was reassurance to, Padre. It was neither Danny Scott (the original Don Daniel) nor Phil Miller (the one and only Don Felipe) but both of them along with a host of mission minded people from St. Ann, St. Richard, Waynesburg University, Aquinas Academy, St. Paul Seminary, Holy Sepulcher, Oakland Catholic, La Roche College, St. Bernard and others who joyfully accept the burden and who are moving mountains to this very day.
Who are these guys? One wears the martyr’s crown. The other gave everything to Jesus and Mary by giving everything to the poor. They came separately to Guatemala. They lived, worked, worshiped, loved, were loved and died there. They celebrated Mass together at least once. There are two other priests in the photo but I don’t know them.
Fr. Stan and Padre Justi share a bit more. Both are having their causes for sainthood advanced. When we visit the missions in Patzún and when we cross Lake Atitlan to pay our respects we walk on hallowed ground. These guys are “Dos Santos”, two saints. I eagerly anticipate seeing them both as together we worship The Way, The Truth and the Life in eternity.