Updated: Jul 17
The unexpected word came to me in an email from our church offices in Spokane. "David Baronti...who ministered for many years in our diocesan Guatemala mission has passed away." No further details. Nothing more than that briefest of death notices at least for the moment. Brief but startling news nevertheless. Startling because David Baronti was a friend. Kind of a big brother. And kind of crazy, too.
So let me tell you a bit about this guy who has died and what he means to me. I first came across David when I was in college seminary in Spokane. He had showed up on our bishop's doorstep asking to be a priest. David had been impressed by Bishop Topel's well-known commitment to eschew the trappings of ecclesiastical privilege and instead live the life of a poor man among the poor. That's the kind of priest David wanted to be. Bishop Topel was impressed and sent him to live with us in the seminary for a few months before sending him to Louvain, Belgium for theological studies. I remember this strange person wandering about our place, speaking to few, a Latin book in his hands trying to get the basics of this church language few now used. Distracted. In another world. As I said, strange. When he spoke, it was softly and with a unusual lilt. I did not make any effort to get to know him and then he was gone.
He completed his studies in Louvain during which time he decided his place in the world as a priest would be in our local church's long-standing mission in the highlands of Guatemala. Bishop Topel agreed and, even before being ordained, off he went to serve among some of God's most forgotten sons and daughters in the isolated town of Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán. David's new home was located in a deep valley some eight or ten miles off the Pan-American Highway, a serpentine dirt road was the only way in or out at that time. The town itself had attached to it many surrounding villages, some a great distance from the center and only accessible on foot. Its isolation meant that it's people retained a great deal of their ancient culture, much of which pre-dated the Spanish conquest. No one spoke English, some spoke Spanish, most spoke only K'iche', the indigenous dialect of the area. Catholicism with an undercurrent of ancient Mayan religious sensibilities was pretty much the only religion practiced in the area. Devotion to the local patron saint, Saint Catherine of Alexandria, was deep and personal.
David arrived as a deacon, not yet a priest, and immersed himself from the get-go into this world so distinct from Western civilization. He learned Spanish, but mastered K'iche'. He studied the culture from inside out and with time became as close to a native as an outsider can become. He was ordained a priest there and would spend the next 46 years of his life as the pastor of Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán and its dependent villages. Almost every one of those years was filled with difficulties and challenges beyond imagining. His daily life was marked by the usual responsibilities of any pastor: presiding and preaching at Mass virtually every day, but for him. not just in town, but several times a week, also out in the distant villages which often involved long hikes through the mountains. He tended the sick and counseled the troubled. He taught classes on the faith and scriptures and prepared hundreds of catechists to do the same in their communities and villages. He baptized countless children and presided over hundreds, if not thousands of weddings and funerals. But he also served the people with projects that would benefit them economically and socially. He built silos to store corn giving some breathing room for a people accustomed to a subsistence culture to get through thin times. He dozed a road through the mountains to the coastal outskirts of the region. He started a trout hatchery to both provide new protein to the local diet and make some money of a prized dish at fancy restaurants in the city. Well, the list goes on. When David latched onto an idea for a project that would benefit his people he was dogged in pursuing it until it was completed, sometimes many years after he first conceived it. On top of all that, over many years he used his language skills to to translate the scriptures and liturgical books into a classical form of K'iche' that are linguistic masterpieces, bringing back from desuetude vocabulary and elegant grammar that was at risk of being forever lost. He did this with the assistance of the community's eldest of elders, asking them to recall and record these old words from their childhood, which poetically expressed the mysteries being conveyed in the scriptures and liturgy.
Besides all that, there were even bigger challenges to deal with across those 46 years. A devastating earthquake in 1976 left many dead and injured and also upset the culture allowing new divisions and conflicts to grow among the people, one of which was the astonishing and fast-paced rise of Evangelicalism, splitting families and villages into religious factions, unraveling the tribal identity which previously had been absolutely communitarian. The Evangelical ethos of individual and personal relationship to Jesus rather than one that was communal and mediated through the sacraments, seeped into the local Catholic Church, too, by way of the parallel rise of Charismatic communities who sometimes mimicked their Protestant neighbors in those aspects. David had to continue to support and strengthen his parish and community in a new context during those years and he did so with a masterly mix of paternal fierceness and pastoral compassion.
Even more dire was the rise to power of a militarized national government at war with its own people. In the 1980's, its so-called "death squads" murdered hundreds of thousands of indigenous people, including many in the territory of Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán . David knew his name was on a "list" of people to be taken out by those death squads, as were other missionary priests in the region. Some of his brothers were indeed killed, most notable was Father Stan Rother from Oklahoma, now beatified as the United States' first martyr; Blessed Stanly was a good friend of David's) and David could easily have been also. It was a terribly dangerous game he had to play to both continue serving his indigenous community whom he would not abandon and stay at least one step ahead of the military. He did and eventually the danger subsided.
But then there was this: Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán is located on unstable ground that in prehistoric times had been a lake bed. There was just under the surface a layer of mud-like clay that was slowly but surely sliding downhill. You could see the effects in almost any permanent structure: cracks in the walls and breaks in the foundations, and eventually either letting a structure go to an early death or rebuilding, sometimes more than once. Even the nave of the beautiful colonial church at the heart of the town had to be deconstructed stone by stone and rebuilt with light-weight cement block. The cracks came back so David planted dozens of eucalyptus trees around the church in hopes of stabilizing the ground. Geologists informed the community that its ancient location was doomed and needed to be relocated lock, stock and barrel to a new site as soon as possible. That new site turned out to be up near the Pan-American Highway, at a place called "Alaska", closer to the neighboring town of Nahualá than it was to the original Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán. It was far from ideal: at 10,000 feet above sea level it was cold there, water supplies were not good, it was far from the people's fields upon which they relied for survival, and even from the beginning, the folks of Nahualá protested, saying that the land was actually theirs. David fiercely fought the move every step of the way, but he could not prevent it, so a new Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán was built and the majority of the people were relocated there. But not all: David refused to go as did a number of families with him. The leaders of the new Ixtahuacán took with them the precious colonial church bells, statuary, and silver and gold liturgical items like chalices and processional crosses, not to mention baptismal records going back centuries. David fought the removal of these treasures, but was forced to give way finally. Though the municipal government was relocated up to New Ixtahuacán, and a new church was built there, some 32 of the dependent villages chose to remain with Old Ixtahuacán and its pastor, Padre David. (In recent years, the dispute with Nahualá over the land the New Ixtahuacán was built on has turned violent, becoming a small but deadly war between the two towns). Old Ixtahuacán continued to slowly slide downhill, but the predicted disaster has never befallen the town. Instead, with David pastoring it forward, it grew and remained largely out of the fray that has engulfed the new town in its struggles with its neighbor.
And so it went...for 46 years, day in and day out, David serving, giving, pushing forward. When David reached the age of 70, he finally retired, leaving his beloved Antigua Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán, once and for all to live out the remainder of his life elsewhere.
I really only got to know David when as a young priest, I spent time with him among his people. I had for a long time felt an interior urge to visit Guatemala and maybe, in time, go work there myself. I went down for a few weeks a couple years after I was ordained and spent most of that time in Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán with David. I experienced the life there for those few weeks alongside this extraordinary fellow as I accompanied him in his pastoral adventures. I fell in love with the place. I also came to know David for the first time as a friend and mentor. He was a contemplative at times and a rushing river of pastoral energy at others. I could find him reading a thick book on the Gospel of John one hour and then be jumping in his Toyota Landcruiser to run to Quetzaltenango to pick up repair parts for God-knows-what. I would listen to him teach his catechists in K'iche' with powerful emotion one afternoon and the next be beside him in a smoke-filled hovel anointing an elder in the last moments of life. Amazing...and terribly inspiring to a young priest like myself at the time.
In the opening paragraph of this reflection, I referred to David as "kind of crazy". At first blush, that may seem a bit disrespectful, but I use it lovingly to describe the more-than-quirky side of this extraordinary man...at least to us who still live most of our lives following the spoken and unspoken rules of the Western world. David was crazy-in-love with his people in Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán, and that craziness was evident in almost everything he did. When we drove from this place to that, we careened from this place to that; he was a terrible driver and his recklessness on the road made me fearful for my life more than once. He had absolutely no skills in administration or organizing anything. He kept his "calendar", such as it was, in his head and so was late to most everything and often enough didn't show up at all. Documents were stuffed in his pockets and often lost, forcing him to get new ones and wasting a few hours here or a day there, straightening the mess out. Money was similarly treated, bills rolled up in pants pockets and checks from donors used as bookmarks and lost in airports as he traveled back from the U.S. after fundraising. It was hard to be with him sometimes because our sense of good order and simple life management was lost on him. Even in that first visit, the chaos was everywhere; it was a crazy life. Careening was not just how he drove, it was his best way of getting things done. But even then, I could see that when he preached or presided at Mass, when he visited a sick or dying person, or when he counseled a married couple having troubles, he was a guy filled with the Holy Spirit and the compassion of Jesus. To see him smile as he baptized a baby was to see God's smile in flesh and blood.
In 1988 or so, I had the opportunity to go to Guatemala myself as a missionary. The intention was that I would be there for six years. The plan was that I would take David's place as pastor of Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán while he went to one of the most distant and poorest dependent villages to extend to them the pastoral attention they had been missing for years. It almost worked, but not quite. In less than a year, I was back home in Spokane, my dream having fallen apart under the harsh reality of trying to minister in a world I did not understand. I was too organized, too professional, a babe in the woods in a seemingly un-comprehensible culture and it took its toll. Following the Masses of Easter Sunday, I drove up the serpentine dirt road to the highway and then on to Guatemala City for an unexpected flight home. I felt like an utter failure and that feeling held strong for months. Even as I settled into a new parish back home, the sense of broken dreams and remorse that I had abandoned these people, combined with the inability to share the fullness of this failure in my life with anybody there, practically broke me. Life back in the States seemed boring and lifeless. That is, until David came back to Spokane the next fall for a fund-raising visit. We got together at the retreat house where he was camped out and talked. Well, I talked and he mostly listened. He was the only person who could possibly understand my devastation. With tears, I spoke about my regret at having given up too soon, not fulfilled my vocation, at being too stupid and weak to be a missionary. Finally, David, as he would do for anyone, pondered for awhile, then looking me square in the eye with compassion and mercy, told me I had done the right thing. I had been blessed to be there for even a short time and had blessed the people in that time. It was right for him to be back in Ixtahuacán, too. That was where he belonged. It was right for me to bless new people in a new parish with the gifts I had been given, not the gifts I wanted. God would bring great blessings out of this for me and everyone I would ever serve down the road. Well, I'm not sure he actually said all that, but its what I heard and walked away with, healed.
When I last visited David in Antigua Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán, he told me of his plan to retire and leave for good; my comment to him was, "David, I can't imagine Ixtahuacán without you or you without Ixtahuacán." I still can't.
So that's why I love this crazy guy and why the people of Antigua Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán are in deep mourning for they loved him far more than I. They are finding it hard to believe he has died and have asked me via text messages countless times if it is really and truly true. Sadly, I say that it is. But I find it hard to believe, too. David Baronti dead? This crazy-in-love guy filled with dogged determination, boundless compassion, and profound love of God and God's people: gone from this world? Yup, it is true, but it is indeed hard to imagine our world without him just as it was so hard back then to imagine Ixtahuacán without him.
The other night, through the technological wizardry of Facebook, I watched the funeral Mass the people of Antigua Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán celebrated for him in that old, beautiful church which was his spiritual home for so long; I could feel with them their great love as they commended his spirit to the Lord he made known to them so often and so profoundly. His mistakes and failures forgiven, I am sure their intense prayers have carried his spirit to the heavens of their ancestors and his.
Careen on in peace, David, forever.