In San Lucas Tolimán, on the shores of the breathtaking Lake Atitlán here in Guatemala, there is a very special mission parish, led by a very special priest — Father Greg Schaffer of the Diocese of New Ulm, Minnesota, known affectionately here as Padre Gregorio. We think it is so special, we decided to have our son George baptized there.
The first time I visited San Lucas with my family, we went to a Mass that was standing room only, with parishioners in traditional dress speaking softly in Kakchiquel spilling out onto the terrace in front of the parish. People made room for us, however, pulling plastic chairs out so my wife and I could sit while a few local women took turns holding George.
Padre Gregorio gave a courageous homily that day, addressing the scourge of violence and extortion that has affected San Lucas, a quiet community off the main tourist routes where everyone used to know everyone else. It was evidence of his commitment to accompany this community through difficult times, as well as his ability to adapt to the changing demands of his ministry — what it means to work for justice changes with the times. To his enormous credit, after 50 years as a priest — 45 of them here in San Lucas — Padre Gregorio has not lost that ability.
During Guatemala’s 36-year civil war — in which the official record suggests 250,000 people were killed, most of them indigenous Mayans — it meant working for peace. Peace accords ended the war in 1996, but the violence hasn’t stopped. Last year more than 6000 people were killed in Guatemala — more than the annual average of homicides during the country’s painful war. Fr. Greg continues to work for peace, but in a different context. Today’s violence in Guatemala is driven by a volatile and unpredictable mix of drug cartels, their shock troops, mafia, brutal gangs and a weak state that is unable to make peace and keep it.
Beyond using the power of the pulpit to work for peace, Fr. Greg has patiently accompanied processes of community development in San Lucas to, as he puts it, ensure that people have the basic things they need to live with dignity — land, housing, access to clean water, education and health care. Fr. Greg and the San Lucas Mission have been working for nearly a half-century to achieve this vision. Ongoing programs in these and other areas have transformed the community and stand as a testament to Fr. Greg’s life’s work.