Thursday, October 12, 2006

The blood of martyrs brings forth fruit

Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the murder of Father Joao Bosco Burnier, SJ

Father Burnier

Joao Bosco Burnier was a Brazilian Jesuit of very well-to-do family, who, after long service --- faithful, diligent, obedient, but not very successful --- as a glorified file clerk in Rome, and then as vice-provincial and master of novices during the implementation of the Ecumenical Council, was assigned in the late 1960's as a pastor in Mato Grosso state, first in Cuiaba and later even deeper into the Brazilian wilderness at Diamantino, where he lived and worked as a very conventional missionary priest.

In the first week of October 1976, Father Joao attended a pastoral meeting at Santa Terezinha; he had treated himself to an airplane ride to get there, but he would do the return trip by outrigger canoe and bus, accompanying his bishop +Pedro on an episcopal visitation of the circuit.

On the afternoon of the eleventh of October, the bishop and Father Joao arrived in the settlement of Ribeirao Bonito. Father Joao spent his afternoon praying and pondering in the parish's little garden, then he, the bishop, and the local pastoral staff, gathered with the faithful at the river to gather the water needed for the next day's baptisms, take it to the church, and bless it. Towards the end of the service, someone came in panic with a report of two local women being tortured in the local jail, and could the bishop come and try to stop it. The bishop agreed, but did not allow any of the local pastoral staff to accompany him, for fear of reprisals after he left them. But he did allow Father Joao to go with him to the jail, since Father would leave when he did and not be an ongoing target. So the bishop, young, tall, scrawny, with all the appearance of a underage curate, and Father Joao, middle-aged, graying, of dignified bearing and the total physical stereotype of a bishop, went off to the jail.

At this point, I'll let Robert McAfee Brown tell the story, in Legenda Aurea style ["The Wondrous Mystery of the Efficacious Death of Father Joao", The Other Side, October 1986]:

And when, after a father resisted the taking captive of his two beloved sons by a most barbarous officer, killing the officer in self-defense, behold, the police took his sister and his daughter-in-law captive and beat them, inflicting all manner of cruel tortures upon them. And when their cries became ever louder and their pleadings more inportunate, a youth in the village, hearing their distress, went forthwith to the bishop, entreating him to intercede on their behalf. And straightway did the bishop go to the police station, taking with him the blessed Joao, a member of the Society of Jesus who pled to accompany his excellency on an errand of such justice and mercy.

So brutal were the police, who, without ceasing, were continuing to inflict cruel assaults on the women, that when Father Joao stated his intention to report the matter to the regional authorities, a soldier who was present smote him a blow on the face and shot him through the head straightway.

Father Joao made his peace with God and prepared to die. He assured those who sought in vain to assauge his wounds that he offered up his life and death for the people who had been wronged in that region and repeated several times, in recollection of his beloved Savior on the Cross, the words,
Consummatum est, "it is accomplished." After three hours, he lost consciousness. The next day, he died.

Father Joao's body was taken to his parish at Diamantino, where he was buried in the village cemetery, among the people whom he loved and who loved him. But, that's not quite the end of the story. For the people of Ribeirao Bonito were extremely disturbed; if they were abused and disdignified, if one of them had been pistolwhipped and shot, that was just the way life is, but to attack a priest of God, that was just too much to endure! So, returning to "The Wondrous Mystery....":

And the people, who until now had been fearful to speak their indignation at acts of perfidy against their kind, did now wax wondrously indignant at the death of Father Joao and were not accepting of it. And behold, at the seventh-day Mass to honor the memory of the slain priest, their indignation overflowed, and, lamenting the evil that had been their lot, they marched in great solidarity to the site of his murder and of the torture of the two women, and there they planted a cross as a memorial. Then some, no longer willing to accept their lot, shouted out their wrath. "This is not a place where justice has been done," some said. "This is not a place where justice can be done." And together they acted out their wrath, destroying with their hands and fists and shovels and axes the police station, after which they broke down the walls of the jail and freed the prisoners, responding to the mandate of the Lord to liberate the captives.

And when there was no longer stone upon stone in that place, only the cross remained --- a cross of suffering, of judgment, of triumph. [....]

And the governors of the realm did hear of these actions and the actions of divers others elsewhere. And it came to pass that they enacted laws that forbade torture. And thus it was that Father Joao's death was efficacious for the ongoing life of many others and remains so to this day.


Joao Bosco Burnier, priest, holy defender of the innocent, pray for us.

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