Photo courtesy of USAID Biodiversity & Forestry / Wikimedia

Fr. Ricardo Falla: Ministry in War-torn Guatemala

Fr. Ricardo Falla, S.J., a renowned Guatemalan anthropologist, gave a talk at Boston College about his experience living with native Mayan populations during the civil war in Guatemala.

Fr. Falla is from Guatemala City. During his pastoral work he lived in the Ixcán, a jungle region of Guatemala near Mexico. The Ixcán is home to a large indigenous Mayan population.

The conflict in Guatemala dates back to a coup sponsored by the United States in 1954. The violence reached its zenith in 1982 when the government massacred multiple Mayan villages in what many consider to be an act of genocide.

The majority of Fr. Falla’s pastoral work took place been 1983 and 1984 within displaced communities that were home to a number of guerrilla rebels.

Fr. Falla’s ministry work was controversial within the church. Members of his local parish thought it was improper for a priest to associate with groups tied to the rebel cause. But others, including his Jesuit superiors, gave him their blessing. They considered the insurgency to be a just response to unprovoked violence perpetrated by the government. Fr. Falla and the supporters of his mission understood that war was the only option for these people who were being threatened with extinction.

When asked during his talk if a just war is truly possible in the modern world, Fr. Falla responded by commenting on the ways in which modern technology and internal conflict blur the line between civilian and combatant. Fr. Falla explained that this often leads to a larger number of civilian casualties, something he witnessed first-hand during his time in the Ixcán.

Although it is impossible to remain completely neutral as a chaplain, Fr. Falla said that his support was not for the guerrilla warfare itself but for the hope of a new and more just society.

Although many problems still face the Mayan population of Guatemala, Fr. Falla believes there has been progress towards creating a better society. Evidence for his claim comes from the improvements to quality of life that he has observed since his days living in the Ixcán.

In his talk, Fr. Falla drew a distinction between the role of a parish priest and the role of an accompanier. Fr. Falla described himself not as a leader in this situation but as someone being led by the people.

According to Fr. Falla, the primary goals of his mission were to humanize the people he served and to show them love. The army tried to exploit the native Mayan people with psychological tactics. For example, they would drop pamphlets into the jungle that compared the villagers to animals. Through his work, Fr. Falla sought to affirm the human dignity of these communities.

Because BC students may not have the opportunity to travel to war zones and aid victims there, Fr. Falla encouraged them to seek out local opportunities for accompanying marginalized populations.

During the question and answer portion of the talk, one audience member raised awareness for programs that allows people to show solidarity with immigrants facing deportation in Boston.

While BC students may not be able to completely ameliorate the problems that these communities face, they can follow in Fr. Falla's footsteps by showing marginalized people the human decency that society has denied them. 

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