Editor’s note: Nothing is more destructive of Easter faith than to ignore the problems of the poor in our midst, the scourge of violence in all parts of the world. The following story is a powerful example of the power of the resurrection. Father Melo’s commitment to the church and the poor reveals the Easter light of Christ.
Two months ago the readers of The Prairie Messenger (01/17/18) were introduced in an article by Michael Swan to the situation of a Honduran Jesuit priest, Ismael Moreno, known nationally and internationally as “Padre Melo.” He is one of many Jesuit priests around the world who live on the edge because of their discipline, their high intellectual standards, and their commitment to the church and the poor.
I met Father Melo in 1988 when he came to study in Toronto and since then a bond of friendship and love has connected my family to him. In 2013 Father Melo invited me “to accompany” him in Honduras, which means to walk with him or to shadow him in his travels. The theory behind accompaniment is that the presence of a foreigner is a hindrance to would-be assassins employed by the state or by someone from the oligarchy.
Father Melo, like many Hondurans, knows the pain of violent death among friends and family. His parents, Pedro and Angela were poor campesino farmers. Father Melo’s father, Pedro Moreno, was the president of a farmer’s co-operative that was under siege by foreign investors who wanted to buy land to grow sugar cane. Pedro urged the poor farmers to stick together and not to sell. It was Melo who, at the age of 13, discovered his father’s mutilated body in the office of the co-operative. Shortly afterward the farmers started to sell off their parcels and become part-time workers on the sugar hacienda.
Angela, known as Doña Lita, carried her first pair of shoes for many kilometres to her wedding so as not to get them dirty. Her husband farmed until his murder and Lita worked hard producing tortillas and other items to support the family. Melo would have had financial difficulty to continue in high school and he had thought about getting a job to help support the family. However, he got the highest grades in Grade 8, which won him a scholarship to the private Jesuit school that mostly catered to the rich of El Progreso.
His keen intellect kept him at the top of his class throughout high school. Melo’s ambition was to go into law or the Jesuits to work for the poor. He remembers a day when Jesuit Father Padre Guadalupe was visiting the family and Pedro said to his young son, “If you want to be a priest, be like Father Guadalupe or don’t bother.”
Padre Guadalupe was an American missionary who became radically aligned to the struggle of the poor farmers, particularly the banana workers in the northern plantations of the Standard and United Fruit companies. In 1983 Padre Guadalupe was captured by Honduran and U.S. troops and after being tortured he was thrown alive over the jungle along with other political prisoners.
On Nov. 16, 1989, an elite American trained murder squad of the Salvadoran army entered the campus of the Catholic University and killed six Jesuit professors and the two women housekeepers. Those Jesuits were professors of Father Melo when he was in training as a seminarian. When Melo’s mother, Doña Lita, heard of the assassination of the Jesuits, whom she knew personally, she summoned Melo to her side and, having him kneel beside her, she told him to have his affairs in order because if he was to be faithful to his calling they would come some day for him.
So why do they want to kill Padre Melo today? Honduras is a failed and corrupt narco-state. It is ruled by a military dictatorship, many of whom were trained at the infamous School of the Americas. The American embassy calls the shots in Honduras as it has up to six military bases in the country, including the largest airport in the country. The country just went through a fraudulent electoral process, which has confirmed the most corrupt in society as the government: an alliance of military, embassy, oligarchy and drug cartels. Padre Melo is director of an independent radio station, “Radio Progreso,” and a human rights centre, “ERIC.” Of the most dangerous careers in Honduras are law, journalism, and environmental defence.
Father Melo is perhaps the leading figure in the Catholic Church in the area of human rights and interpreting the “signs of the times” (Vatican II). Politically he is non-aligned, but his political astuteness is widely sought by many sectors of society. I have accompanied Melo to meet with sociology professors, with teachers groups, with women indigenous campesina groups, with youth groups, with leaders of co-operatives and labour unions, with political groups and even with groups of clergy. They all look for the same thing. “How can we understand what is happening in Honduras?” they ask. Melo has that rare ability to speak to any group at their level, to engage them in meaningful dialogue and shared wisdom.
During my most recent five-week trip this year, Melo was called to the capital city of Tegucigalpa to meet with three United Nations representatives who had come to Honduras on a fact-finding mission. They spent the entire day in conversation, just with Padre Melo. He is often called upon to meet foreign delegations and commissions such as the O.A.S.-sponsored MACCIH — “Support Mission to Combat Corruption and Impunity in Honduras.” In 2015 Padre Melo was awarded in Norway the “RAFTO” award, sometimes called the “Alternative Nobel.” There have been numerous other awards given to Father Melo and the twin apostolates he directs: Radio Progreso and ERIC.
Since the military coup of 2009, documented in the video La Voz del Pueblo (https://ignatiansolidarity.net/la-voz-del-pueblo/), the Jesuit mission has been under attack by the military dictatorship. One radio manager, Carlos Mejia, was murdered in 2014. More than 16 of the Jesuit’s staff have received credible death threats, the most recent in late February 2018.
In 2013 Father Melo was at a road blockade supporting an indigenous Lenca community in their resistance to an illegal hydroelectric project that would deprive the farmers of their source of water. Along with him was Berta Caceres, a Lenca environmental and human rights defender and a longtime friend of Father Melo. Berta in 2015 received the prestigious Goldman environmental award, which her supporters celebrated thinking this international recognition might give her some protection. At the Rio Blanco blockade, an American woman who at that time was accompanying Padre Melo took a photo of Melo and Berta together. Berta smiled at Father Melo and said, “Who of us will they kill first?” Berta was assassinated on March 2, 2016.
In my trips to accompany Melo I know he has quietly saved lives. I have gone with him to a federal prison to visit political prisoners. His legal team advocates not only for persons dealing with political and human rights issues, but poor people wrongly imprisoned.
In Honduras there is no other prominent Catholic Church official who speaks out against the corruption, the violence, the fraudulent electoral process, and the high “femicide” rate. The combined teams of Radio Progreso and ERIC did a full-year campaign about violence against women. It was followed by an intensive national program promoting Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical, Laudato Sì. Father Melo openly supported the Movement of the Indignant — a national protest against the bankruptcy of the Social Security Health Program — because the dictator drained the funds for use by his own political party.
Father Melo has lived with death threats for most of his priesthood. He has been kidnapped more than once. People around him have been killed. He cannot be bought, although there have been efforts internationally and nationally to compromise him with financial support. As Father Melo once explained, “First they try to be nice and ingratiate themselves with praise and admiration. Then they try to buy your support. If that doesn’t work they try to ridicule you or criticize your work. When that doesn’t work they move to criminalize you or paint you as a traitor to the country. Then they kill you.”
Little is a retired teacher living on Vancouver Island. Born in Alberta, he went to university in Ottawa. As a member of the Oblate congregation he went to Peru as a missionary from 1972 to 1980. Returning to Canada he married and taught in the Toronto Catholic school system for 26 years until retirement.