Martin Royackers, SJ
A Life and a Death

[Fr Philip Shano, SJ, a Canadian Jesuit and personal friend of Fr Martin Royackers, SJ, posted the following reflections in a Jesuit email chat room. The editors of Company Magazine feel that no better tribute to Fr Royackers is possible than to reproduce Fr Shano's moving reflections here.]

Martin Royackers, SJ
Martin Royackers, SJ

I returned last night from Jamaica, where I participated in the funeral and burial of Fr. Martin Royackers, S.J. who died so tragically on June 20, 2001. Jean-Marc Laporte, the Acting Provincial, had invited me to be part of the delegation of Canadian Jesuits going to Jamaica for the funeral.

Martin and I entered the novitiate in 1978 and did philosophy together in Spokane, leaving there in 1982 for regency, Martin in Montreal and me in Winnipeg. After two years of regency and a year of studies we ended up in theology together.

I will always be grateful for a very special bond that developed between four of us during our years at Regis - Martin, Warren Broussard (New Orleans Province), Chris Pinne (Missouri Province) and me. On May 28, 1988, Martin, Tony Baranowski and I were ordained together in Toronto. For a few years in the early 90s Martin and I were both working in Guelph. Martin was Chaplain at the University of Guelph and lived at the Farm Community.

Once Martin went to Jamaica, our contact was sporadic. I suggested that I would go to Jamaica and do my own retreat in a little building he converted into a retreat house. I told him that he could direct me and that would give us a chance to visit. His grave is quite close to that building, so I can still follow through on my promise.

I know that the events around Martin's death have caused me to experience a conversion in how I have perceived Martin's gifts and his uniqueness. While we remained friends during our 23 years of Jesuit life, I can freely admit that we did not always see eye-to-eye, especially regarding ways of doing things. I thought I knew most of his gifts (and his struggles and idiosyncracies) until I spent time in Parkhill, Ontario and Annotto Bay, Jamaica this past week.

Tuesday, June 26

I drove with Monty Williams, Bernie Carroll and Michael Allen from Guelph to Parkhill to join the family and friends in Martin's hometown for a Memorial Mass. Mrs. Royackers estimates that there were 800 or so squeezed into the community centre. This gathering included about 20 or so Jesuits, Bishop Sherlock from London, and many priests from the Diocese of London.

At the start of Mass, Michael Czerny brought a message from Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, the Superior General of the Jesuits. He named the 40 or so Jesuits who have given their life since 1977 because of the Jesuits' decision to take seriously the preferential option for the poor and the promotion of a faith that does justice.

The General's message reminded us of the death in 1977 of Rutilio Grande, SJ, in El Salvador and indicated that Martin was working with rural poor in a situation very much like that of Grande. You may recall that it was Grande's death which led to such a major conversion in Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed in 1980.

Doug McCarthy presided at the Mass. For his homily, he read excerpts from Martin's letters to him from Jamaica. There were references to the Spiritual Exercises and to some of Martin's spiritual struggles.

At the end of Mass, there were statements from Martin's family and a closing statement from Bishop Sherlock. The service in Parkhill was very moving. One of the more moving moments was watching Peter McIsaac's mother and sisters come to communion, knowing that Peter himself is in Kingston, Jamaica living in a neighbourhood being torn apart by violence and killings.

Another moving moment was looking at all the photographs which were on the walls. There were photos from Martin's family, Parkhill, Guelph, the Farm Community, our ordination day, Martin's years in Jamaica, and so on. I recall looking at one of the ordination photos and being struck by the remembrance that Jim Webb was Martin's vesting priest and Monty Williams was mine


Wednesday, June 27

I flew from Toronto to Montego Bay, Jamaica. As I left Guelph, I knew that I had to bring something with me to Jamaica. I filled two small film canisters with soil from the farm in Guelph. My intention was to add it to Martin's grave. I was met at the airport by Jim Profit. He and Jim Kelly and Norm Dodge had arrived in Jamaica a day earlier. All three have spent considerable time in Jamaica. Jim and I drove to Annotto Bay, with a brief stop along the way to see Maria Protz, a friend of Jim's. Her family lives here in Guelph and is known to many of us.

As we drove along, I was reminded that my last visit to Jamaica was in the summer of 1981. I was there for the three month immersion program which was organized by Jim Webb in those days. That summer I spent most of my time at St. Patrick's Parish in West Kingston with John Duggan and Michael Doiron. Needless to say, as Jim drove and we chatted, I found myself reflecting on how my life has unfolded in the twenty years since that summer. It was the next summer when Martin participated in Jim's program.

Jim and I arrived at Annotto Bay and were greeted by the sisters. Ann Marshall and Nancy Sullivan are both Sisters of St. Joseph from Hamilton. They have been working in Jamaica for years. Margaret Kane, the Superior General, had sent Katrina (I don't know her last name) down to be on hand in Annotto Bay as soon as possible after Martin's body was discovered. Katrina had worked in Jamaica in earlier years. The sisters played a major role in the events of the past week in Annotto Bay. I hope that they get a rest.

After being fed by them after my arrival, I went with a few people to Tinsbury for an hour or so of a gathering. Tinsbury is one of the tiny villages where Martin served. There is a small school which I think is used for Mass as well. The gathering consisted of chanting and praying. As far as I know, it would go on all night. If I had stayed around long enough, I would have heard personal testimonies of Martin's life. Similar gatherings had taken place in other villages as well. We came back and I slept in the small house where Martin lived, a three minute walk from St. Theresa Church. I already mentioned the other Jesuits who had come from Canada. Michael Czerny was also with us from Rome. Thursday, June 28

I was up early and went to the church. I sat in a back pew and watched as people from the parish prepared the church for the funeral - flowers, TV monitors and speakers for the crowds who would not fit inside, etc. I offered to help, but nothing was needed. I sat and realized that this was their way of showing their love for Martin one more time. I tried to sit and pray the office of the dead. I recalled the powerful readings we had in the days after Martin's death - St. Aloysius Gonzaga, the Feast of the Sacred Heart, John the Baptist. I noticed that the day of his burial was the feast of St. Irenaeus and was struck by the way in which Martin was in some mysterious way "fully alive" in ways he never imagined. As I sat in the church I also pondered my 23 years as a Jesuit and knew, without any doubt, that something important was being offered to me in these days in Jamaica.

Sister Nancy came along and asked me if I wanted to see Martin's office. I saw his old office and the new one that he had created for himself recently. Those who know Martin's ways will not be surprised to know that the floors were covered with papers. A blessing on those who will go through his stuff. I've done it here in Guelph a few times for older men who have died.

Nancy told me the details of how Martin was found. She told me what they knew of the autopsy report and that the one bullet did so much damage to Martin that he could not have suffered. His death would have been immediate. The killer knew what he was doing! She took me to the spot where Martin was killed. There was a simple cross and some flowers propped up in a pail. I sat there and tried to pray. An old man came along and told me that this was a very sad corner and that I may not want to stay there long. Through my own tears I told him that I knew that and that was why I was here, that I needed to stay.

Martin's family arrived at the Church about 9:45 a.m. A few minutes later the hearse arrived with Martin's body. Then, at 10:00, we welcomed his body to the church and went inside. From then until after 11:15, it was just the family, the sisters and a few of the Jesuits. It was not easy for any of us.

Several times I went and stood at Martin's coffin. I found myself asking him what it was that he wants to teach me. Some of the words of the Anima Christi prayer went through my mind - "Passion of Christ, strengthen me ... ". Martin had most of his hair cut off just a day or so before he was killed and so there was an intensity about his looks. (The programme from the funeral includes a photo taken the day of the haircut. Apparently it was taken at a baptism. Martin has this wonderful smile on his face. The intensity is matched by the delight in his face.)

With a little help from a few of us, Michael Czerny led us through some prayers as we sat during that time alone with Martin. At one point later in the day, Michael Czerny commented on how well cared for and included Martin's family had been in everything around Martin's death and the funeral. Apparently this was not the case with the Jesuits in El Salvador.

A few others came in before the doors were opened. I recall Shirley Thomas (she had done the Exercises in Guelph a few years ago and was now working in the parish). Another was Barbara, Martin's secretary. Another was Anton, the deacon who had lived and worked with Martin. He will be ordained to the priesthood in a week or so. I am sure that his life as a priest will be shaped by this for as long as he lives.

About 11:30 the doors were opened for the crowds who came to pay their respects. They just streamed by the coffin and went to find seats. The church was filled before long and people started finding places outside in the church yard. Their love for Martin was so evident. I'm not sure how many were there for Martin's funeral and burial. There were many. I know that an article in the Toronto Star said something about 2,500 or more. I'm not sure about that, but the crowds were large and it was clear that they loved Martin and felt loved by him.

At 1:00 p.m. there were tributes to Martin - song, movement, prayers, testimonies. After the people from Annotto Bay spoke, Martin's family spoke. One woman, a principal from a school in which Martin was involved, gave a long list of his accomplishments. I wish that I could remember everything that was said. What is clear is that Martin was one busy and intense man who could not rest until everything was done. He knew what he wanted and what needed to happen. He was involved in many forms of pastoral work, teaching (all ages, including at the local theologate), the cooperative, agricultural training, writing for the bishops, etc. I sat and thought that it is so true that none of really know or appreciate the work of the other.

The programme referred to the "Solemn Pontifical Funeral Mass" for Martin. It began on time at 2:00 p.m. and ended just after 4:00 p.m. It was extremely well-organized and was a celebration. The chief celebrant was the Bishop of Kingston, Edgerton Clarke. The main concelebrants were Samuel Carter, S.J., the retired Bishop of Kingston, Charles Dufour, the Bishop of Montego Bay, Jim Webb and Michael Czerny (as the representative of the General of the Jesuits).

Then there were many priests. At the start of Mass, the local Member of Parliament brought greetings from the Prime Minister of Jamaica. Sitting in the front pew was the Canadian High Commissioner. I gather that his office was very helpful in making some of the arrangements for Martin's family. Michael brought greetings from the General. They were just as powerful and moving even though it was my second time hearing them.

The liturgy was beautiful. Although I did not know any of the songs, it became easy to join in. One in particular stands out for me. At the preparation of the gifts, we sang, "Back to the dust, back to the dust, back to the dust we must go. Don't mind your body, but only mind your soul. Back to the dust we must go." I wouldn't have complained if we had sung it for an hour. It was upbeat and spoke of what so many of us must have been feeling as we sat there - that reminder to be free, as Martin was, such that we do not fear those who go after the body. (Of course, we all know that he was also somewhat free in not always taking care of his own body and how he clothed it.) Just above the altar was a banner which read, "What is borne of God conquers the world." I don't think that it was placed there specifically for Martin. I suspect that it was already there.

Jim Webb preached. It was a powerful homily in which he pleaded for an end to the violence in Jamaica. He also asked that Martin's killer not be hurt. I thought it was a very brave statement considering the threats against him. We should all keep him in prayer.

After the funeral we processed with Martin's coffin in the back of his pick up truck. For the sake of visitors to Annotta Bay, Jim Webb explained that Martin has often used his truck to take the bodies of the poor to their final resting place because they could not afford any other route. It was a long procession to the May River Cemetery. The road is not in good shape, so we walked the last section. The cemetery is no longer in active use, but it is the one Martin loved so much. It is a short distance from the small school.

Just up over the hill is an old teacher's cottage which Martin has renovated for use as a small retreat house. The locals refer to it as the "Jesus house". It has three bedrooms. Martin renovated it using a $1,000 grant from SEEF a couple of years ago. I placed half the soil from Guelph in Martin's grave and half around the outside of the little retreat house.

The rite of committal was beautiful. Again, there was chanting and singing. We stayed until the grave was sealed with Martin's body inside. His grave is on the edge of the cement floor which is all that remains of an old church. He couldn't have picked a better site for his resting place. The view is spectacular and it is in a setting to which he gave so much energy in these past few years. I glanced up and saw the moon. I smiled. Those who know me well know that the presence of the moon has long symbolized for me God's faithfulness. It's at those times when I most need that reminder of God's abiding presence that I glance up and see the moon.

After we ate in the school, we left the cemetery. I headed to Kingston with Peter McIsaac and Michael Linden (a New England Jesuit who just left Jamaica a few weeks ago and came back on behalf of his Provincial. I had decided to stay at St. Anne's with Peter and Chris Llanos for the remainder of my time in Jamaica. St. Anne's Church is in the heart of the most violent section of West Kingston. Considering that bombings and killings have been a regular feature of life there for some time, I'm surprised that it does not make the news here in Canada. From what I've seen, the Holy Land is no worse and yet West Kingston never makes the headlines.

Friday, June 29

It turns out that the overnight gun battles not very far from St. Anne's were among the worst they have experienced in recent weeks. I slept through it all! However, I did wake up a couple of times because of dogs barking. Chris Llanos and I spent the morning together. We visited Margaret Bolt, the principal at St. Peter Claver. Many "Martin" stories were told. We also went to see Burchell McPherson who is known to many Canadian Jesuits. That afternoon, Peter, Chris and I spent time together in the hills outside Kingston. I was happy to get away for those hours. I am sure that it was Peter's first break in a long time. We should also keep them in prayer.

Saturday, June 30

This time I did hear the shots and the helicopters. There was even a gun battle just feet from us about 8:30 in the morning. It reminded me of my time in Kingston twenty years ago. The neighbourhood I was in was very violent, partly a follow-up to the elections a year earlier. As Chris and Michael and I sat at the kitchen table and listened to the firing, I wondered about Peter. He had left a little earlier to anoint someone at a nearby hospital. Things got quiet for a few minutes. It turns out that that was when Peter was returning from the hospital. His presence caused them to take a pause in the shooting. Thank God! A little later he went to the Cathedral for the ordination of permanent deacons whom he has helped form.

I spoke briefly to Jim Webb on Saturday morning. He indicated that there is new evidence which seems to confirm that the land issue was behind Martin's murder. People in Canada would have read that the police released the two young suspects who were being held. I read in one of the Jamaican papers that the police "now have a clearer picture of who the real criminals may be and are moving to make arrests soon." Chris took me to the airport and I returned to Guelph.

Sunday, July 1

Here it is - Canada Day. I am grateful for these past days of being inserted into Martin's world in Jamaica. These have been privileged days. During formation, Martin used to often remind us that such and such was "good for the spiritual life". Well, these days have been good for my spiritual life. These days have given me an energy and a focus that I have not felt since tertianship. I have been called to prayer and to a new appreciation for the Eucharist. These have been heavy days but they have been good days.

Martin's death in Jamaica offers many challenges to our life as Canadian Jesuits. I have found myself angry, sad and hurt by a number of things - some of them peripheral to Martin's death - the kind of things that a death often reveals about family or community dynamics and politics. I have regretted the ways in which I did not recognize Martin's gifts.

I have felt pride that Martin should now be numbered among the Jesuits who have died because of their commitment to the poor and to a more just world. I feel challenged by that and hope that I can allow his life and death to touch my ways of proceeding as a Jesuit. Even here in Guelph, in a world where my life is not threatened and where so much energy has gone into administrative affairs, the invitation to me is not so different than it was to Martin.

I also hope that the Canadian Jesuits can grow through this. We are being given an opportunity in this death. Will we take advantage of this moment? Martin was not always liked or respected here in Canada. What about that? Can those who did not like him allow themselves the freedom to be changed in some way? I realize that my voice is heard in this Jesuit Province. I have been listened to in ways that Martin rarely was. Can we listen to him now? As Michael Allen reminded me earlier this morning, a prophet is never accepted in his own country. Can we accept him now as he was accepted in his adopted land? We know that he didn't always fit in. Maybe we did not know how to let him fit in. His ways were not the neat ways of most of us. However, his peculiar ways of being had an impact in his short life. Rutilio Grande's death changed Oscar Romero. Can Martin's death change some of us?

One of my personal hopes is that we will be able to make a sacrifice as a Province and send someone to Jamaica - not to replace Martin, because that would place a heavy burden and expectation on someone, but to say to the church of Jamaica (and to say something to our Jesuits who are still there) that we will not shrink back and run away. We are ready to send a very good Jesuit to be present in his unique way.

I have found myself being given life these days in ways that I never expected. I keep looking at Martin's photograph and I ask him what it is that he wants to teach me. I hope that I am open and free enough to hear what it is that he is saying to me. I feel privileged that I was able to touch his body and ask for the grace to be given the strength to not shrink back in fear or hesitation. "Back to the dust, back to the dust, back to the dust we must go. Don't mind your body, but only mind your soul. Back to the dust we must go."

Philip Shano, SJ
Guelph Centre of Spirituality
P.O. Box 1238, Stn. Main
Guelph, ON N1H 6N6

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