Volume > Issue > The Odyssey of an American Priest in Guatemala

The Odyssey of an American Priest in Guatemala


By Richard Bermack | April 1985
Richard Bermack is a photo-journalist and oral historian living in Berkeley.

Ed. note: In his 1983 visit to Guatemala, Pope John Paul II said the following to the Indian popu­lation of Quezaltenango on March 7:

“Christ ensures that…all men and women have the same dignity and value before him…that no one must despise or mistreat another hu­man being, for God will punish him; that we must all aid each other, the most abandoned above all.

“At this moment…dear sons and daughters, the church knows the marginization which you suffer, the injustices which you have to contend with, the serious difficulties you meet in defending your lands and your rights….

“Therefore, as she carries through her evangel­izing task, she seeks to be near you and raise her voice in condemnation when your dignity as hu­man beings and children of God is violated. She wants to be together with you peacefully, as the Gospel demands, but with decision and energy in obtaining acknowledgment and promotion of your dignity and your rights as persons.

“For this reason, from this place and in sol­emn form, I call upon rulers, in the name of the church…to shield you effectively from abuses.

“I ask with insistence that…no one claim ever again to confuse authentic evangelization with subversion and that ministers of religion may exer­cise their mission in security and without hindranc­es. And do not let yourselves be made use of by ­ideologies inciting you to violence and death….

“Your fraternal love ought to find expression in increasing solidarity. Aid one another to organ­ize associations for defending your rights and achieving your projects…. Do not be fainthearted in the apostolate….

“I will bear you in my heart and frequently ask abundant blessing from heaven upon you.”

In the following interview with the Rev. Ron Burke, a Roman Catholic priest, the usual question-and-answer format has been dispensed with. The words are those of Fr. Burke.


Let me tell you about the death of Pio Coban. The mayor of our town called a meeting announc­ing the planned destruction of our basic ecclesial communities. The date, October 20, 1980, had ev­en been set. On the 19th, at midnight, a secret po­lice car showed up at Pio’s house. The police drag­ged him out of bed. His body was found two days later outside of town, badly tortured — eight bul­lets.

In his hand was placed a hit-list of 81 names. My name was first on the list, followed by the names of the Guatemalan priest working with me, our catechists, and the leaders of our ecclesial com­munities and parish council. They all fled for their lives. Yet, at least 16 of them have by now been captured, tortured, and killed.

This was all done by the government leaders of Guatemala. Why did they destroy our communi­ties? What sort of threat did we present to them? That is a good question. We thought they would see some value in what we were doing, because we were talking about nonviolent social change. The guerrillas would leaflet our people. Those leaflets were very interesting; they would say things like “Don’t believe the missionaries who tell you that it is possible to have social change without guns. They are deceiving you. There is no other way than taking up arms.” So we thought that because our position was so openly and systematically nonviolent there was nothing the government could accuse us of.

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