An Interview with Father Tom McSherry
The Sooner Catholic, July 3, 1994
By John Mallon
Note: This Interview won 1st Place in the Archbishop Edward T. O'Meara Award, of 1994 from the Society for the Propagation of the Faith; in the category: Interviews With Missionaries, for his Sooner Catholic article, An Interview with Fr. Tom McSherry. Fr. McSherry took over the assignment of Blessed Stanley Rother who was murdered as missionary priest in the mountains of Guatemala to the Oklahoma mission of Santiago Atitlan. Fr. Rother was deemed a true martyr by the Church after his murder, and was beatified in 2018.
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(Father Tom McSherry is the missionary priest in the Oklahoma-sponsored mission in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala. He was in Oklahoma recently to give a report on the Mission at the Oklahoma Clergy Days. He is a very impressive man. There is a rock-solid manliness to him coupled with a genuine humility and modesty as well as a disarming shyness and charm and a self-effacing sense of humor.—Ed.)
John Mallon: Father, what can you tell us about how things are going now down in Guatemala in the Oklahoma mission?
Father Tom McSherry: At the present time we’re getting ready for the fiesta July 25, the Feast of St. James, and at this time of year we have First Communion, confirmation and matrimony, so a good part of our attention goes to getting ready for that. And of course the 28th of July is Stan’s anniversary. [Father Stanley Rother, Father McSherry’s predecessor, was murdered in Santiago Atitlan in 1981]. This year will be his 13th anniversary, and that is always a very special time for the parish too.
You mentioned at clergy days that you’re always being asked about the current political situation down there. Can you update us on that?
As long as I’ve been in the country, there has always been talk of coups, coups d’etat, various groups vying for power. At the present time the president is finishing up his term. He took office just a year ago in June to finish an unfinished term of his predecessor who was removed from power, and so the national political scene is really very uncertain. There’s been a change in the constitution. There’s supposed to be some congressional elections, this summer, in August. So it’s hard to say very much about the political situation. It’s very fluid. In the village we continue for the most part to experience peace and tranquillity. Right before I left there was an attack on a bus that was leaving Santiago. It was about halfway to San Lucas, which is about ten miles away, the next town on the only paved road out, and it was attacked, fired upon, and people were robbed. I heard reports of people being wounded but I haven’t had that verified. So as long as people are in the village it’s pretty peaceful, but when people leave to go to places sometimes they run into problems.
What was the situation after Father Rother was killed? What was the chain of events afterwards?
He was killed in 1981. The violence got really serious in Santiago around the early part of 1980, and the violence continued with some periods of calm until the Army left in 1990. So in other parts of the country the violence continues. In Santiago the real peaceful time started in late 1990.
So life for you has been more tranquil and normal since then?
Yes. I came in 1984, in October, and until 1990 it was constant fear. And not just for me, the whole town. The town would close up at night in dark, people abandoned their fields if they were any distance from town because they would be intercepted by army patrols or caught in a fire fight and be suspected of being with one side or another. Some people just never came back and were never heard from again. So until 1990 it was a very tense situation. If you go to Santiago now on a Friday or Saturday night people would be out on the streets. People have reclaimed their fields they had to abandon, so except for the transportation in and out by road it’s pretty calm. There have been no incidents. I know people who have come across from Panajachel on the boat have had problems—it’s about an hour’s boat ride, but it’s much easier by bus for transporting produce or things they buy than it is by boat because they end up on a bus anyway on the other side.
What’s normal daily life like now in Santiago Atitlan?
It‘s poor. But basically my daily routine goes like this. I usually get up early, I have some time for exercise and reflection and office work. I find I don’t concentrate very well after people come for work. So I try to do most of my correspondence and reflection early in the day. We have two secretaries. We have a small school for orphans, so along about 6:30 the first people start arriving. My day is pretty full until we close the front door of the reception area, at 6 in the evening. I usually have dinner with the Sisters—there’s six Sisters—then I go to bed early. The town actually wakes up early because for the people who go to Guatemala City or other places to buy or sell, or see the doctor out of town, the first bus leaves at 3 a.m. and the last bus leaves about 1 p.m. In May it’s time for planting, so a lot of people go out early to their fields. In large part, people get up with the sun. We have electricity, so they don’t necessarily go to bed with the sun, but you really have a sense of the rhythms of nature. It’s still really a big village, 25,000 would be a small town in Oklahoma, but the way people think and live is very much like a village.
So is most of your actual activity celebrating the sacraments? What do you actually do with the people in the normal course of the day?
In the normal course of the day I usually have Mass in the main church and/or one of the chapels around Santiago—we have about ten Mass stations counting the main church in Santiago, and the other main church in Cerro de Oro—but I usually have Mass somewhere each day during the week. Our sacramental work is concentrated mainly on the weekends. We have a big Mass on Thursday afternoon; a lot of people come for that.
I do a lot of training with the catechists and working with the staff just to keep everything functioning. Most of the direct sacramental preparation is done by the catechists, for instance, the First Communion classes, the marriage classes, the confirmation classes. Most of that preparation and the monthly baptismal seminar is done by the people. I do lots of anointing of the sick on an emergency basis, and we generally have a policy of having someone available to do a blessing of the dead at noon. Sometimes this is at Mass and sometimes it’s a service of the Word. People there bury their dead the same day that they die usually, or at least the day following if they die during the afternoon. And so if they want to have a blessing we have someone prepared to do it. Usually at 6 or 7 in the morning someone will come and tell us if there needs to be a blessing. So I do that kind of stuff in the morning pretty frequently. Also on Sunday afternoons we have house blessings which many times the Sisters do and we also have anointing of the sick Sunday after the afternoon Mass if people are ill and it’s not an emergency.
Do you have other priests working with you?
I had a priest assigned to me in Santiago. There are two priests from from Minnesota who are in the neighboring parish of San Lucas and there are two retired priests with them now, so when I’m away they usually take care of the sacramental needs of the parish while I’m gone.
How has being there and sharing that life with the people affected you, for example, when you come back to Oklahoma how does it feel?
When I first came back ten years ago it was, I don’t know if the proper word is culture shock, but I found very different worlds. Actually in Santiago, Guatemala technologically has come a long way. I have a telephone and FAX that I’ve had for two years. I didn’t have that when I first went to Santiago. I’ve got a computer, cable TV which is not in English, but I don’t feel now as I did then partly because I’ve been there a long time. Also because home has come to Santiago and not always in the best forms. Cable TV doesn’t just bring inspirational programs! So I’ve gotten used to being there. Generally I look forward to coming home to Oklahoma and I generally look forward to going back so I feel like that’s a good sign that I’m not unhappy in either place. Wherever I am I try to make the best of what the day gives me.
Has the collapse of Communism in Europe had any affect on the political condition in Latin America or in Guatemala that you can see?
I’m not sure Communism’s collapse in Europe had much affect, unless you include Russia. But certainly there’s been a change in Nicaragua, a change in El Salvador, and they’ve been talking about peace in Guatemala for a long time. With the collapse of Communism in Europe and Russia, and with Cuba having its outside help cut off, it seems people are more willing to look for peaceful solutions. It’s not an easy connection to trace, and I don’t really have hard data, but it seems generally in the region people realize the superpower conflict is a different ball game now and people seem to be looking for peaceful solutions.
It seems hard for Americans to tell the “good guys” from the “bad guys” in these conflicts that go on south of the border. Can you comment on that?
Well the best comment I can give is when my father was in Guatemala—he’s now deceased—but when I was first appointed to Guatemala he came down with me to look over the place and we stayed with the priest in San Lucas and my father asked Father Greg Schaffer—this is 1984—“What’s the deal with Communism in Central America? And why do they want to change?” And Father Schaeffer said, “Well, Frank, how many children do you have?” and Frank said, “Eleven,” and Father Schaffer said, “You’d do almost anything to see them fed, wouldn’t you?” and he said, “Yes I worked hard to see that they’re safe and healthy and educated.” And Greg Schaffer said, “Well, that’s basically the issue. People want their children to have a chance. The present system, if it doesn’t give it to them, they’ll look elsewhere.’’ And I’d say that in terms of good guys/bad guys, the basic issue for people is survival; it’s a chance for their children; it’s a better life. If someone offers them that opportunity it’s often not an ideological issue, but a survival issue.
But it appears that it would seem it’s a ripe situation for either side or any ideology to exploit.
I’d say any situation can be exploited, and that certainly is the difference between the rich and poor: access to medical care—the issues we talk about in this country—access to education, decent roads, a decent life for your family, for your children, a safe life. I think those issues cross the ideological bounds. People are generally looking for a better life, people are willing to work for a better life. They see that as a possibility.
So how are those things coming along? How does it look for a better life in which people can raise their children?
I think looking at the economic indicators and the sociological information there’d be little reason, as I see it, for hope. And I say that’s why the Gospel message, the Christian message, is of such importance to these people and to me, in that situation. Just going on the economic indicators, it’s a very depressing, a very hopeless situation. And I’m not a very good prophet on these things anyway, so I have a great hope, but it’s not based on concrete things. It’s based on the general hopefulness that comes with believing in the Gospel.
It comes down to a question of overcoming greed wherever it’s manifesting?
Some people think poor people don’t feel greed, but the people I work with know greed. It’s just the scale of what they can be greedy about may be different, maybe a few dollars instead of a hundred thousand or a million dollars. But pettiness and greed are not foreign to the poor, and despite our attempts to romanticize the poor and want to feel inferior to the poor, the poor know struggle and know sin just like we do.
So original sin knows no economic boundaries?
Yes, I think it’s original—I don’t know what Adam and Eve’s bankroll was but—
They had it all!
They had everything! Maybe they didn’t need money, but greed that tends to compare, and to want to do better and want to have better than the next guy, is not a uniquely American vice.
Well, do you think some people in the United States have tended to romanticize the poor in Latin America for various reasons?
I’ve worked with the poor. That’s been my life, and I tend to romanticize them. I know a lot of people like me who tend to romanticize. If you didn’t romanticize I doubt that you’d last a minute. If all you did was romanticize I don’t think you’d last either because you’d be constantly disappointed, waiting for this thing to pan out, waiting for someone to change the way you think they should change. So I find romanticism necessary in terms of idealism, hoping for change, and I find realism, a certain skepticism important too, for one to be balanced; and where you put your trust, what results you’re looking for, what expectations you’ve got to work with.
Are you taking volunteers down there from the United States?
Since I’ve been there we have taken volunteers on short term projects like building widows’ houses or something like that. I have a friend who comes down to work on the computers twice a year for a week or two. I’m not encouraging volunteers right now for two reasons: first of all, when I first went there it had to do with the safety of the volunteers. I just didn’t feel I could guarantee anything and so I didn’t encourage anything but the shortest of term volunteers. The other issue for me is the time and energy involved—it’s not entertaining the volunteers—my friend Greg Schaffer who has been a volunteer for 30 years in the next parish talks about infrastructure. Basically that means food, laundry, translation, a place to stay, health, what happens when somebody gets sick, transportation to their project, or to the plane when they leave or arrive, and I’ve found in my situation that that’s been difficult. I’m the only English speaker on the staff, so having volunteers really is a pretty big investment. I’ve never felt like I was in a position to give the volunteer a fair experience.
Also, there’s been a lot of anti-Americanism currently. It’s actually worse than I’ve ever seen it, since I’ve been there, 10 years, and it has to do with rumors of Americans buying babies and shipping them to the United States, or buying baby parts. The latter rumor is really unbelievable to me because of the technological sophistication that it would take does not exist in Guatemala as far as I know. But that’s the kind of rumor that people believe. The State Department currently has a travel advisory for travel to Guatemala, at least when I left they did. They’re talking about lifting it, but there have been two or three incidents of Americans being threatened. In one case a woman almost died who was beaten. She was suspected of taking children. These three incidents all had to do with taking children.
Is this child stealing for slavery or sexual slavery, that sort of thing?
No, I think there are two things. One is just adoption for people in the United States who are childless. Somehow people in Guatemala understand there’s a market for babies in the United States; and the second thing I heard was about using these children for heart or other organ transplants. I’ve not heard anything about sexual abuse or prostitution.
In other words, the suspicion is these children would be killed for organs, murdered for this purpose?
Yes, murdered for this purpose, or taken for adoption in the United States, but for adoption by childless couples first.
It seems ironic to hear of the fear of the people down there of Americans coming and stealing children. Here we keep hearing all these stories about the Cairo Conference for Population Control which wants to impose abortion and birth control on poor countries. The Vatican is standing against it while so many other people attempt to argue that these things are necessary. Meanwhile these Guatemalans are saying there’s a child shortage in the United States such that they’re afraid of Americans coming down and stealing their children. It strikes me as ironic. It’s a sad commentary. Could you say something on that?
People have asked me if they could adopt children from Santiago and my answer has been no, because the extent of family in our village really takes care of it. They take care of the sick; they take care of the children; they take care of the elderly; they take care of the mentally ill as best they can; and I don’t want to interrupt that process. I know people who have adopted—very good friends of mine who have adopted—from South America, Peru. A friend of mine in fact has adopted from Guatemala. I don’t mean to comment on the personal suffering of couples who are childless, but I find it ironic that we abort so many children and we need to import—we take—children from other countries.
Most of the people I know who do it legally tell me that. I think it is ironic that we abort. We are dedicated to what we call the free and the right, but apparently we need to adopt children from other countries because we don’t have children to adopt in this country.
© by John Mallon, 1994, 2009