Homily, Mass for the 50th Anniversary of the Assassination of Fr. Art MacKinnon, S.F.M., June 21, 2015, at the Parish of St. Leonard, New Waterford, Cape Breton, N.S., by Fr. Ron MacDonell, S.F.M., Vicar General. Readings: Job 38.1-4,8-11; 2 Cor 5.14-17; Mark 4.35-41.
Today we are here to remember Fr. Art MacKinnon, all of us from his various families: the MacKinnon clan, the Diocese of Antigonish in the person of Bishop Dunn, the diocesan priests and the faith community the Parish of St. Leonard, and the Scarboro Missions family of missionaries, with priests present here who worked in China, Japan, the Caribbean, Guyana and Brazil. It is as if the whole world is here at this Mass for Fr. Art. We gather in gratitude for sacrifice of his life on behalf of service to the poor and the oppressed. Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15.13).
Fr. Art was ordained in 1959 and sent to the Dominican Republic to join other Scarboro priests in mission work begun there in the 1940s. The situation was not peaceful. Last Friday evening, Fr. Art’s nephew, J.B. MacKinnon, gave us an excellent picture of the situation, which he published in his book “Dead Man in Paradise.” For thirty years, from 1931 to 1961, the country was ruled by a dictator, Trujillo, with the support of the United States. Trujillo took over half of the country’s farm land and created monopolies of most of the industries – sugar cane, petroleum, rice, coffee, etc.
Trujillo also created a network of police and spies to report anyone speaking against his regime. He was killed by rebels in 1961 in a car chase. After his death, factions vied for power. The followers of Trujillo want to continue his regime. But the people wanted democracy and free elections. They wanted peace and justice. Civil war broke out.
A few months before Fr. Art’s death, on April 25, 1965, a revolution took place. The military were ousted. A few days later, on April 28, over 12,000 American marines landed to back another dictator. All opposition to the new regime was persecuted and eventually ended by August.
It was in midst of this turmoil that Fr. Art lived and served the people of Monte Plata. He spoke out in his homilies against the oppression. Military and police spies would be listening to his sermons. Just imagine if, at the back of St. Leonard church here today, there were police and spies listening to what we say, observing who was attending the service and noting names. That was the type of surveillance that the Dominican people lived under.
During those months of persecution, thirty-seven young people from Fr. Art’s parish were jailed, suspected of rebel activity. Fr. Art denounced the arrests publically, visited the young people jail along with their parents, and pleaded for their release. He was not afraid to speak out.
It was this prophetic witness that marked Fr. Art as a target. Like Jesus, he spoke out against injustice, taking the side of the poor and oppressed.
Fifty years ago tomorrow, on June 22, 1965 – it was on a Tuesday that year – Fr. Art MacKinnon received a call to attend a sick person in his parish of Monte Plata. He went to respond to a sick call, ever attentive to those suffering, as any priest should, as Jesus did. He was found dead, along with two police, presumably his killers, also dead.
What was going through Fr. Art’s mind and heart, as he drove to attend to the sick person, thought the tropical heat, on the road lined with palm trees? Did he feel that death was near, that God was calling him? Did our Celtic intuition speak to him, with some kind of premonition?
In the Gospel today, we hear of the fear of the disciples in the middle of the storm, their boat tossed by waves. They wake Jesus and he calms the storm, “Peace! Be still!” Then Jesus challenges the disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
We face many storms in our personal lives and families – illness, despair, tragedy.
And we also face many social storms. Fr. Art was caught in the middle of one, the oppression of the Dominican people by unjust leaders. He gave his life, because he loved the people, because he loved God, because God is love.
Martyrs speak out against the storms of suffering in our world. They cry out “Peace! Stop the violence, stop the exploitation, stop the oppression! Build a world of peace, of justice, of dignity for all!” When people speak this loudly enough, and keep repeating it, they will be killed by those who are unjust. They will be targeted, as Jesus was, as Fr. Art was.
There are many martyrs throughout the world. Recently, on May 23, Blessed Bishop Oscar Romero was beatified. He was assassinated in 1980 because of his stance against the military in El Salvador. In 2005, American Sr. Dorothy Stang was murdered in Brazil, because of her stance with the people and the creation of an ecological reserve in the Amazon jungle. Just this past week, Pope Francis published an encyclical on the care of creation and of our planet. Sr. Dorothy was one of the voices calling for care of the rainforest, of our planet.
We have only to listen to the news or go on the web, to hear of these many violent social storms happening across our world.
I myself experienced persecution in my work in Brazil, among the indigenous people in the north. The Church supported them in their land reserve claims, opposed by dozens of cattle ranchers who invaded their lands. In 2004, three missionaries of our team were kidnapped by thugs and held for three days. They were released unharmed, but during those days we did not know what would happen. Over the next years, when we visited the hundred or so villages to celebrate the sacraments, we had to be cautious, travelling at night to avoid danger of being kidnapped. Like the disciples in that boat, I turned to Jesus in prayer, time after time, to calm the fears storming in my heart. Finally, in 2010, the indigenous won possession of their reserve.
We seek answers to our suffering, to senseless deaths like the murder of young Fr. Art, only 33 years old. If there is an answer, then it is hinted at in the 1st reading. Job, a just and innocent, is made to suffer illness and social rejection as a test of his faith. He questions God, “Why? Why must I suffer?” God’s response is to challenge Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding. Who command the waves of the sea to stop?” In his conversation with God, Job realizes that God is much larger than his own understanding of suffering. Job gives in to the mystery of God.
The suffering that Job underwent came from God. But suffering that is inflicted by humans on other humans, through oppression, violence and exploitation – we call that “sin.” It does not come from God.
It is Jesus, the son of God, who calms the waves, who shares this power with the Creator. It is Jesus who shows that through suffering and death, we are led to new life in the Resurrection.
If we can leave our fear behind, and look to Jesus in faith and prayer, he will calm our storms. We can be certain, because of our faith in Jesus, that Fr. Art is alive with God, that he is part of the communion of saints.
Is Fr. Art a saint? Yes, because he gave his life as a martyr. “Martyr” means “witness.” We can be witnesses, or martyrs, in our daily lives, by carrying the daily cross that we are to bear. The other way to witness is to spill your blood on behalf of Jesus. Fr. Art was 33 years old when he died, the age that Jesus died on the cross. Certainly, in my opinion, that is symbolic of holiness.
St. Paul tells us today, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” Fr. Art is part of this new creation, what we call eternal life, what we call heaven.
This weekend, the community is Monte Plata is remembering Fr. Art, Padre Arturo, in loving gratitude. They celebrated a Mass on Saturday evening. On his tombstone in Monte Plata in the Dominican Republic, this beatitude is written, “Blessed are those who are persecuted in the cause of justice, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Blessed indeed is Fr. Art MacKinnon. He now dwells in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Padre Arturo, presente!