By Ron Rolheiser 2009–06–14
On the evening of May 18th, five priests driving north from Guatemala City for a community meeting were stopped by masked gunmen. After robbing the priests of their belongings, they opened fire, killing Fr. Lawrence (Lorenzo) Rosbaugh, an American priest, and seriously wounding Fr. Jean Claude Nowama, a Congolese priest.
This item on the news hit close to home, not just because the victims were priests, but because they were all members of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the community to which I belong, and the man who was killed was someone whom I knew well and deeply admired.
Mircea Eliade warned communities to not botch its deaths. Our community does not want to botch this one. Lorenzo Rosebaugh was no ordinary man and no ordinary priest. He was a special gift to the world, to the church, to our community, and especially to the poor for whom he gave his life.
Fr. Lorenzo was born in Appleton, Wisconsin, in 1935, but grew up in St. Louis. He entered the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate in 1955 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1963. Always in love with the poor and driven by a passion for justice, Lorenzo was strongly influenced by Dorothy Day and Daniel Berrigan. For this, he paid a price.
In 1968, in protest of the Vietnam War, he burned some draft files. This landed him in prison for two years. In 1975, he hitchhiked to Brazil and for the next several years lived on the streets of Recife, without a rectory or an address, celebrating the Eucharist with the street people and helping them find food each day. This aroused the suspicion of the authorities and he was arrested, imprisoned, and beaten. Given the political climate in Brazil at the time he would, no doubt, have disappeared had there not been international pressure for his release. Indeed it was only after Rosalyn Carter visited there that he was released. She met with him afterwards and he made the most of the opportunity, asking her to intervene on behalf of prison conditions in Brazil.
In the 1980s, a near-deadly bout of hepatitis forced him to return to the United States for treatment, but he was soon active again. In 1983 he was arrested for sabotaging a public address system at Fort Benning and playing Archbishop Romero’s last homily through it. For this action, he spent another 18 months in prison.
From there, he moved to the Catholic Worker in New York, then on to El Salvador to live again with the poor, and, after a long retreat at our Oblate Motherhouse in France and some time in St. Louis to tend to his dying mother and write a memoir, he moved to Guatemala where he ministered to the poor until his death last month.
He authored a book about his experiences: To Wisdom through Failure: A Journey of Compassion, Resistance and Hope. I had the privilege of writing the Foreword for this book, a disarmingly honest account of his inner journey through all of this. Among other things, I said this:
“Daniel Berrigan once said: A prophet does not make a vow of alienation, but a vow of love. This is what Lorenzo did. He made a vow of love and it has taken him over some pretty rough roads, mostly alone, mostly on foot, landed him in prison, left his body beaten and showing the wear and tear of it but in the end it has left him - happy, mellow, gentle, faithful, honest, and wonderfully grateful.
Our religious community was founded to serve the poor and our founder challenged us to learn the language of the poor. We all try to do that, but only a few have the charism and heart to actually get down and dirty, right on the streets where the poorest of the poor look for food, for a bed, for consolation, for dignity, and for God. Lorenzo learned the language of the poor, became their friend, their advocate, and their priest and we are proud of him!
At his funeral, his provincial superior described him as “partly John the Baptist, partly Francis of Assisi”. That’s exactly how the poor saw him.
Lorenzo didn’t like to talk about himself, but at our Motherhouse in France one night he shared this story: “Before I first went to prison for civil disobedience, I did a retreat with Daniel Berrigan. He told us: ‘If you can’t do this without growing angry and bitter - then don’t do it!’ I prayed the whole night before my first arrest; both because I was scared and because I knew I needed God’s help not to grow angry and bitter!”
And he never did grow angry or bitter. Always gentle in spirit and baptized by the poor, I suspect that even in his final moments when an unthinking gunman was senselessly ending his life, he, like Jesus, had an empathic sense of why this was happening: “Forgive them; they know not what they do!”