Missionary priests killed in Peru remembered for commitment to faith
Two Polish Conventual Franciscan missionaries killed by insurgents in Peru in 1991 are challenging Catholics to renew their faith commitment, said a Franciscan spokesman.
The priests, Fr Zbigniew Strzalkowski and Fr Michal Tomaszek, offer the faithful examples of “exemplary lives and vivid testimonies,” Franciscan Fr Jan-Marie Szewek told reporters.
Their beatification later this year “will also mobilise and challenge us, since these were young priests who, despite the dangers facing them, refused to escape and remained faithful to the end,” Fr Szewek said.
A third priest, Fr Alessandro Dordi, a diocesan priest from Bergamo, Italy, killed by the Peruvian insurgents soon after the Polish priests’ deaths, will be beatified with them on 5th December in the Diocese of Chimbote, Peru, where they served. All three were killed by Shining Path guerrillas, a militant wing of Peru’s Communist Party.
Pope Francis recognised the martyrdom of the priests last month along with that of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who was assassinated while celebrating Mass on 24th March, 1980.
Fr Szewek said the fate of the Franciscans, who provided food and medicine while ministering to their Peruvian parishioners during a cholera outbreak, was a reminder that missionary work involves both a spiritual and a charitable “duty of care.”
He explained that their recognition as martyrs by Pope Francis also offered “proof that missionary work makes sense,” and would be “the greatest possible gift” for the Church in Peru, Poland and Italy, as well as for the Franciscan order.
Shining Path launched an armed struggle in 1980. It began fading in 1992 after its leader was arrested. Up to 70,000 people were killed by insurgent and government forces during two decades of fighting, according to a 2003 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report.
Fr Strzalkowski, 33, and Fr Tomaszek, 30, were killed on 9th August, 1991, near their mission at Pariacoto in the Andes Mountains, while Fr Dordi was shot on 25th August near Vinzos.
A Catholic nun working at the Franciscans’ mission, Sr Berta, said a group of masked guerrillas arrived at the Pariacoto church during Mass and abducted the Polish priests, who refused to hand over three novices. The guerrillas accused the priests of impeding the armed struggle and representing “imperialism and the Yankees,” and they shot and stabbed the Franciscans and Pariacoto’s mayor along a road.
The guerrillas left a placard, daubed in the priests’ blood, with the words, “This is what happens to lackeys of imperialism.”
Fr Dordi, 60, who began work at nearby Santa in 1980, was shot when guerrillas stopped the pickup in which he was riding with two seminarians on the way to Mass.
The beatification process for the priests was launched in 1996 by the Chimbote Diocese.
Fr Szewek said the Franciscans could have avoided death by heeding warnings that Shining Path units were approaching, but had “shown deep faith in God” by staying with their people.
“For people today, who often fear the consequences of professing their faith, these examples show (that) martyrdom, far from being something from the past, is present in our own times as well,” he explained.
Born to a devout Catholic family near Wadowice, Fr Tomaszek enrolled in the Franciscans’ minor seminary at Legnica in 1975. He joined the order five years later and was ordained in 1987. After two years at a Franciscan parish in Piensk, he was sent to the order’s new Peru mission in July 1989.
Fr Strzalkowski, from Tarnow, trained as a mechanic before joining the Franciscans in 1979. He was ordained in 1986 and spent two years as deputy rector of the Legnica seminary before leaving for Peru in November 1988.
Fr John Collins, an Irish priest who was evacuated to Chile after working at a neighbouring mission in Peru, described the Franciscans as “fine, dedicated priests,” whose status as martyrs had been immediately recognised.
He said that conditions had become “very frightening” for Catholic clergy after Shining Path announced a seven-year plan to ensure all priests and nuns “swam in their own blood.”
“They said we were delaying the revolution by feeding and helping the poor, but to brand Polish and Irish priests imperialists suggests the (guerrillas) had a hazy knowledge of history,” said Fr Collins, who worked at rural missions in Peru and Ecuador from 1989 to 1997.
“I think their beatification will be a great boost for the local church and an acknowledgment for the thousands of poor rural people who suffered and died during those terrible years,” he added.
The Franciscan launched a nine-month novena in preparation for the December beatifications.
The Diario de Chimbote daily said retired Bishop Luis Bambaren Gastelumendi of Chimbote, who was the ordinary at the time of the killings, had requested the beatifications during talks with the Pope in October.
In a statement, Bishop Francesco Beschi of Bergamo said Fr Dordi had given “supreme witness” after “devoting himself entirely to the evangelical mission,” adding that his beatification would be a great joy for those who knew him.