Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Priest Martyrs of Peru

 Two Polish priest killed by a Communist group in Peru were among those recognized as martyrs by Pope Francis on Feb. 3.

Father Michele Tomaszek and Father Zbigneo Strzalkowski of the Conventual Friars Minor, were killed Aug. 9, 1991, by the “Shining Path” terrorist group in Peru. At the time of their death, they were 31 and 33 years old, respectively.

Both Franciscan priests worked in the town of Pariacoto in the Peruvian Andes, where they lived for 11 years. At the time, the region was struggling to climb out of an economic slump, while terrorists from the Shining Path killed thousands of civilians and local government leaders in an effort to bring a Communist regime to power.

The work carried out by the two Polish priests to help the poor in Pariacoto was considered a threat by the terrorists, who saw their efforts to recruit new members thwarted.

The priests were undaunted by the continuous threats against them and continued their work. On Aug. 9, 1991, members of the terrorist group covered the walls of Pariacoto's central square with graffiti and later that evening kidnapped the mayor.

At the same time, Fr. Strzalkowski exposed the Blessed Sacrament at their parish while awaiting his brother priest for the celebration of the Eucharist. Once Mass ended, they closed the church. Shortly after, a few men wearing ski masks knocked on the door and demanded to speak with the priests.

When the two priests came to the door, the masked men bound their hands and threw them into a pickup truck. Along with the mayor, they were taken to the nearby town of Pueblo Viejo. Along the way, they subjected the priests to an interrogation and accused them of “deceiving the people” and “infecting people by distributing food from the imperialist Caritas.” They also accused the priests of thwarting their revolution by preaching peace. Upon arriving at the local cemetery, the three men were executed.

The Peruvian Bishops' Conference denounced the killing of the two missionaries saying, “Once again committed to the creation of the Civilization of Love in our nation, the Church strongly condemns this bloody disgrace that leads to no way out of the critical situation Peru is facing.”

Upon learning of the news, Pope John Paul II called the friars “the new martyrs of Peru.”

The Conventual Franciscans of Spain in a blog post noted the words of a nun who worked with the Polish priests. A few days after the murder, she said the whole experience felt like a dream.

“I am amazed once again by Fr. Michele and Fr. Zbigniew's fidelity to the Lord and to this Andean town, their will to live what they preached. I remember their enthusiasm for their Franciscan and missionary vocation and their willingness to serve, despite being tired so often,” she said.

“They stayed there until the end. This is not something you improvise; it's a gift,” the nun reflected. “I saw Fr. Zbigniew a few days before his martyrdom, and I asked him if they were being threatened, he smiled and said, 'We cannot abandon the people. One never knows, but if they kill us, bury us here'.”

“I saw Fr. Michele one month before, he was living as if there was nothing wrong, as always abandoned to God. Both men of God perhaps lived thinking their time had not yet come. However, it was God's time,” she said.

The martyrdom of the two Polish priests was recognized this Tuesday by Pope Francis, along with the martyrdom of Italian priest Father Alessandro Dordi, who was killed by the Shining Path 16 days later, and Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero, who was shot while saying Mass in San Salvador in 1980.

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