The Common Good
August 2005

A Courageous Witness

by Marie Dennis | August 2005

Maryknoll Father Ron Hennessey was courageous,

Maryknoll Father Ron Hennessey was courageous, open to life, funny, welcoming, wise, a brilliant political strategist and holy - very holy. Simply put, he was one of the best human beings I have ever known. He survived years of extremely dangerous mission assignments accompanying Mayan communities targeted by the genocidal scorched-earth strategies of the Guatemalan military. And he served the people of El Salvador during some of the most violent years of the U.S.-supported war there. Hennessey’s sudden death in 1999, when he was at home in Iowa to celebrate his sister’s funeral, left a gaping hole in many hearts and, we feared, big gaps in an important eyewitness account of Central America’s agony during the last 35 years of the 20th century.

Those of us who were gifted by his sister Dorothy Marie with copies of the letters Hennessey so faithfully sent home, or who heard his stories firsthand when a particular memory - sometimes comical, often painful - surfaced, knew that despite their humble telling, Hennessey’s stories were extraordinary.

Tom Melville, through his friendship with Hennessey and his own years in Guatemala, knew that too, and he spent many hours with Hennessey retrieving details of his experience. Through a Glass Darkly: The U.S. Holocaust in Central America is the fruit of that effort and of additional extensive research.

Melville’s unusual literary technique of reconstructing conversations from Hennessey’s stories works well, immediately engaging the reader in the horrific reality of Guatemala between 1964 and 1995. His detailed account of Guatemalan and U.S. political intrigue also provides excellent context and important analysis for the heart-wrenching human tragedy that unfolds around the Maryknoll missioner.

FROM THE FIRST pages, the story is profoundly personal. Honed by repeated encounters with the systemic abuse and humiliation endured by the indigenous communities he accompanied, Hennessey’s innate sensitivity to justice began to shape his political analysis. His gentle but determined efforts to uncover the truth painted for him an increasingly clear and disturbing picture of sinister forces involved in human rights violations and violent deaths in Guatemala, including those of Maryknoll Father Bill Woods and his plane passengers in a suspicious 1976 crash.

Hennessey was faithfully on the side of the most vulnerable and breathtakingly clear - though never foolish - in his condemnation of the Guatemalan military murderers and their civilian accomplices, including those in the U.S. government. Hennessey never relinquished his right and duty to criticize tactics of the revolutionary groups trying to attract his parishioners, but he understood the painful moral decision that some made to join their ranks. He was a wise and available counselor to the communities he served and a compassionate pastor trying to help them hold onto hope and their own humanity in incredibly violent circumstances.

Through a Glass Darkly is about human beings, not statistics. Hennessey’s friends, loved ones, parishioners, and colleagues are terrorized and murdered. The massacres described are not about numbers, but about devastated communities and the tragic loss of individuals known and loved.

Historical sections interspersed throughout give the reader a modicum of relief from intense accounts of terror and atrocity, but the story’s impact is huge as the terrifying juggernaut of almost certain, brutal death slowly moves across Huehuetenango, like the rest of Guatemala, destroying one Mayan community after another.

Melville’s book is an enormously important window into the suffering and struggle of Guatemala’s indigenous majority. Major publishers missed a golden opportunity to tell the world an extremely important story with enormous contemporary relevance as the human rights situation in Guatemala again deteriorates and the United States begins to open the pipeline for military aid. To self-publish the book took courage. Now Melville deserves every bit of promotional help he can get from those who care that the truth be told about Guatemala and the U.S. role there. Pass it on!

Marie Dennis is director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns in Washington, D.C.

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