A light that burned brightly for nearly 50 years on the shores of Lake Atitlán in Guatemala has gone dark: Fr. Greg Schaffer of the Diocese of New Ulm, Minnesota, died last week. During nearly a half-century of committed ministry, Fr. Greg accompanied the mostly indigenous community of San Lucas Tolimán through a painful civil war, countless natural disasters and the persistent violence that characterizes present-day Guatemala. He also devoted himself with loving generosity to building community in the broadest sense: among the Kaqchiquel and Spanish-speaking people of San Lucas, between his community in Guatemala and his community in Minnesota, and between the people he loved and served in Guatemala and the countless people whose spirit of solidarity led them into to the welcoming embrace of the San Lucas Mission. He was an extraordinary pastoral agent who ministered to his people’s sacramental needs without ever losing sight of their acute material ones. His legacy includes more than 50 ongoing projects in and around San Lucas, including the Juan Ana Coffee Project.
I only came to know Fr. Greg near the end of his remarkable ministry in Guatemala, and never had as much time with him as I would have hoped for. Even so, in that short time I came quickly to appreciate what a truly special person he was, and what an incredible contribution he had made to the communities of San Lucas and New Ulm. He and the community he led were so unique, that we asked Fr. Greg to baptize our youngest son, who was born in Guatemala. The weekend of the baptism is one I will never forget, but not for the reasons you might think. That weekend, Fr. Greg quietly put his life on the line for members of his community.
I never put this personal story into print during Fr. Greg’s life, but I can’t think of a better way to honor the example and memory of this extraordinary individual than to share it now.
The baptism was arranged by a friend who worked for the Mission and lived with his family in modest quarters next to the parish. Our friend was traveling that weekend and was not able to join us for the ceremony, but lent us his house in his absence. On the appointed day, I arrived with my family and we spent the morning getting settled in the house. That afternoon, we walked over to the Church to meet up with Fr. Greg. He warmly greeted my wife and three kids, and as was his custom, reached deep into his pockets for some chocolates for the little ones. He suggested that my wife take them up to see the altar while he and I talked. As soon as they were out of earshot, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I need your help.”
Turns out, there had been a threat made against the life of our mutual friend. Fr. Greg was trying to ascertain whether the threats were credible. He had arranged to meet with members of the group the following day, and asked me to help him gather some information in the meantime on our friend, whom I knew before he started with the Mission. I told Father I was happy of course to do anything I could to help. But I did wonder whether we were safe in our friend’s house. I worried about a case of mistaken identity — that the shadowy group issuing the threats might come for us during the night by mistake. Fr. Greg dismissed my concerns and assured me we would be alright.
When my wife and kids returned from the altar and we prepared for the baptism, I discreetly whispered into her ear a summary of the conversation I had with Fr. Greg. Needless to say, neither of us were as focused as we might have been on the baptism that followed.
Despite Fr. Greg’s assurances, we lacked his confidence and his courage. We hurried to pack our things and move to a hotel down the street as soon as the baptism ended. I spent the evening tracking down the info that I could and reported it back to Father.
The next morning, Fr. Greg celebrated Mass, greeted some of the members of his community and visitors that had gathered at the weekly pancake breakfast that followed, and quietly excused himself. He put on an old baseball hat, climbed into his road-weary car, and set off, alone, for his meeting. He was instructed to drive to a certain point in the road, park his car, and hike into a coffee farm and await his visitors in a small shed there. He waited. After a while, his appointment arrived — men wearing masks and carrying automatic weapons. They repeated their threats and asked Father to intervene to avoid our friend’s return. Father listened patiently, talked with the men a while, then made his lonely way back through the coffee fields to his car and the Mission.
When he returned, he said simply: “I think the threat is credible.”
I remember being so moved by the whole episode, which I considered to be powerful testimony to the depths of Fr. Greg’s commitment to his pastoral work and his willingness, quite literally, to put his life on the line for the people and the mission he served. This was one isolated incident some 45 years after Fr. Greg first arrived in San Lucas. I wondered how many other times he had assumed personal risk in service of his mission during the previous decades.
He lived in San Lucas during most of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war — a war that saw more than a quarter of a million people killed. He lost friends and parishioners. His contemporary, fellow missionary and friend Fr. Stanley Rother, lived just a few miles down the road in Santiago de Atitlán. Fr. Stanley once wrote in a letter to his family, who was concerned about his wellbeing: “the pastor doesn’t run.” Fr. Stanley was assassinated for his pastoral commitment. The same could have happened to Fr. Greg the day after our son’s baptism, or, I presume, countless other times during his work in Guatemala. But that never kept Fr. Greg from responding to the calling he heard so clearly.
Thank you, Fr. Greg, for everything you did for me and my family, and the countless people whose lives you touched in San Lucas, New Ulm and around the world. Godspeed.