facebook Blessed Be: The Martyrs of El Quiché - Missionaries of the Sacred Heart
13 May 2021

On April 23rd 2021, three Spanish-born MSC priests and seven lay catechists of the indigenous Maya people became “blessed” and were beatified in the Cathedral of Santa Cruz del Quiché, Guatemala.

Last year, Pope Francis signed a decree which recognised all ten as martyrs, and on April 23rd, Guatemalan Cardinal Álvaro Leonel Ramazzini celebrated the beatification Mass in El Quiché. Three priests of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, namely Jose Maria Gran Cirera, Juan Alonso Fernandez, and Faustino Villanueva, were beatified along with seven lay people: Rosalío Benito, Reyes Us, Domingo del Barrio, Nicolás Castro, Tomás Ramírez, Miguel Tiú, and Juan Barrera Méndez, who was just 12 years of age. All ten were killed in Guatemala at various stages between 1980 and 1991, in “hatred of the faith”.

Champions of the poor and vulnerable

It is estimated that 200,000 people, including Catholic missionaries, priests, and nuns, were killed in Guatemala between 1960 and 1996, when the country was by ravaged by conflict between its government military regime and a number of leftist groups. In the 1980s, a time when dictatorship was in full force in Central America, the Church found itself the victim of constant persecution for its role in championing the poor and defending human rights.

During this time, to stand for what was right in the name of peace was to stand against the military regime. The ten martyrs were unashamed and unafraid in their faith, assisting those in need in every way they could. From spiritual guidance and visiting the sick, to serving their communities and attempting to right the wrongs of an unjust regime on a local level, both the MSC priests and the lay people maintained the use of the Bible and the rosary despite the very real danger this posed. They eventually sacrificed their lives for their beliefs, and were killed by those in power who considered the teachings of the faith a threat to the system as it stood.

“I do nothing but preach the word of God.”

The three Spanish MSC priests died terrible deaths for their faith and for their friendship towards the country’s most marginalised people. Fr José María Gran Cirera was shot repeatedly alongside his friend and sacristan Dominic Batz while leaving Mass on horseback on June 4th 1980. Fr Faustino Villanueva was shot in his home, by two young men who visited the parish house, after celebrating evening Mass on July 10th 1980. Some months later, at the end of January 1981, Fr Juan Alonso Fernandes wrote to his brother, saying “I have the feeling that I am in danger. I don’t want to be killed in any way, but neither am I ready, out of fear, to abandon this people.” He was living and working in the north of the country, a particularly hazardous area. On February 13th 1981, he was forcibly detained by the military for questioning. Unbowed, he told them, “What we preach, anyone can hear. If you want to know what I say, just go to church. I do nothing but preach the word of God.” Fr Juan Alonso was released that night, but was intercepted on his way to visit a community the following day. He was tortured in a ravine, and then shot in the head three times.

Twelve-year-old Juan Barrera Méndez, known as Juanito, is particularly noted for his dedication to his faith. He received the sacrament of Confirmation himself, and acted as a spiritual guide for children preparing to receive their First Holy Communion. He was captured in a military raid on his community, and was tortured cruelly before his death; his passion was indestructible, and his name and his testimony are still well-recognised amongst Guatemalan children today.

“Missionaries on the move”

In an interview with Vatican News, Bishop Rosolino Bianchetti of Quiché reflects, “Our martyrs were truly missionaries on the move… They went from house to house, keeping the faith alive, praying with their brothers, evangelizing, imploring the God of life. They were men of great faith, of great trust in God, but at the same time of great dedication to bring about a change, a different Guatemala.”

MSC Superior General, Fr Mario Abzalón Alvarado Tovar, gave sincere thanks to all involved with the beatification at the recent Mass. “The three religious Missionaries of the Sacred Heart and the seven laymen today beatified as Martyrs are the prophetic voice that continues to resonate and call us to recognize the situation that was experienced in El Quiché and in Guatemala in the 1980s,” he said. “Thousands of brothers and sisters who were killed for the sake of justice and their faith committed to building the Kingdom of God. It was a whole system of death – genocide – that destroyed the lives of these ten new Blesseds. They are the sign that this unjust barbarism that bled an entire nation should never be repeated in Guatemala again – never again! Unfortunately, situations like this continue to happen in different parts of the world.”

“Wounds that continue to bleed”

Fr Abzalón continued, “We are encouraging our MSC brothers to be convinced that the best way to honour the memory of those who gave their life is to remain committed to eradicating the causes that led these three Missionaries of the Sacred Heart and seven laity and so many others to shed their blood. Causes that remain open, wounds that continue to bleed in Guatemala and throughout the world, through violence, exploitation, poverty, injustice and corruption. Our mother earth continues to be violated and destroyed. The Common Home needs us so that, inspired by the new Blessed Martyrs of Quiché, we raise our voices and give prophetic, living and coherent witness, as the three Missionaries of the Sacred Heart and the seven laity, today Blessed Martyrs, did.”

As many communities in Guatemala continue to face extreme challenges and severe hardship, including poverty, exploitation, and forced migration, we remember the sacrifice of the El Quiché martyrs, and we pray for all who continue to struggle in their home country, and in similar situations around the world.

“We are united with MSCs and the wider Chevalier Family around the world in celebrating this day and praying for the local church in El Quiché and Guatemala as it continues the work of evangelisation, service and worship, justice and peace, and the dignity of all its peoples, especially the indigenous communities.”

– Fr Carl Tranter MSC, Irish Provincial Leader

Read more about the beatification of the martyrs of El Quiché