James Carney, who disappeared while serving as a self-appointed chaplain for Honduran rebels in 1983, was never the type to sugarcoat feelings, as the opening words of his autobiography attest: “My dear American friends, Jesuits and non-Jesuits: I love all of you, and I think you’re wonderful, loving persons, but I can’t stand living with any of you.”
Many members of Father Carney’s Jesuit community would have said the same of him. When he arrived in British Honduras (today Belize) in 1955 as a young missionary-in-training, Father Carney grumbled that the Jesuit residence, quite modest by American standards, was scandalously palatial. The superior retorted that if Father Carney did not like it, he would happily have him on the next boat back to the States.
Another time, living in St. Louis, Father Carney spotted a newspaper stand selling pornographic magazines near the campus of St. Louis University. He rushed the stand, flipping it over and sending magazines flying, a la Jesus in the Temple.
Like most prophets, Father Carney possessed that extreme self-assuredness that tends to render the world in stark monochrome, black and white, my way or the highway.
Even as a student at the Jesuit-run St. Louis University High School in the late 1930s, the future Jesuit had become disillusioned with American consumerism and the docile Catholicism it cultivated. For him, Jesuit prep school education was no more than a means of ensuring high-earning careers and comfortable lifestyles for well-to-do white kids.
“I was raised like all of you, as a middle-class, Catholic white American,” he wrote in his autobiography, To Be a Revolutionary. “But right from high school age on, I’ve had a deep conviction that most middle-class Catholics are phony Christians, just as materialistic and self-seeking, and as liable to go along with others, as any non-Christian, and often more so.”
Like most prophets, Father Carney possessed that extreme self-assuredness that tends to render the world in stark monochrome, black and white, my way or the highway. But that Father Carney was a prophet is not doubted among hundreds who gathered recently to remember him in El Progreso, Honduras, during a weekend commemoration of the 40th anniversary of his death on Sept. 16, 1983. To those who met in El Progreso, including a number of Honduran campesinos who had known Father Carney personally, he is remembered as a martyr who surrendered his life on behalf of the poor people of Central America.
Father Carney’s unlikely path to martyrdom in Honduras began in 1943, when he was drafted into the U.S. Army and promptly turned down an officer’s commission, caring nothing for the privileges afforded officers. As he explained in his autobiography, he wanted to be among the troops. He eventually made a personal vow to Christ that he would never kill anyone, not even to defend himself. He planned to fire into the air and let himself be killed if he ever found himself face to face with an enemy.
Father Carney was at odds with the army over other aspects of Catholic teaching, too. Soldiers were required to carry contraception any time they left camp on leave. Father Carney objected, saying it was against his religion not only to use contraceptives but even to possess them.
Father Carney’s unlikely path to martyrdom in Honduras began in 1943, when he was drafted into the U.S. Army and promptly turned down an officer’s commission, caring nothing for the privileges afforded officers.
His captain advised him to just take them and not make a fuss. Instead, Father Carney threatened to denounce the practice to the military bishop, who would surely make a fuss in Washington. The captain acquiesced.
At the war’s end, Father Carney entered the Jesuits, and after a number of years of study, he volunteered after his ordination for the Honduras mission. Missouri Jesuits had just begun staffing that mission in the 1940s after a local bishop requested English-speaking Jesuits, in part to minister to U.S. executives of the United Fruit Company. The U.S. banana importer owned vast swaths of Honduran land, and with the aid of the C.I.A. and U.S. military, United Fruit frequently intervened in Honduran politics to ensure it kept it. (In 1910, another U.S. banana corporation, which eventually merged with United Fruit, orchestrated a coup and brought its own hand-picked choice for president to power, who promptly granted the company land and tax concessions his predecessor had refused.)
When Father Carney arrived in Honduras in 1961, most of the population lived in extreme poverty. He found the situation intolerable. Destitute campesinos were blocked from owning land and eked out life on the brink of starvation with no access to health care or education.
He pledged his life to their cause, living and working among them as a parish priest and organizing local and national campesino cooperatives to fight for land reform and human rights. Meanwhile, he chastised his Jesuit brothers of the Missouri Province for their coziness with the banana executives who wrought such misery on the Honduran poor.
In 1973, after more than a decade among the campesinos, Father Carney renounced his U.S. citizenship to become Honduran, also officially changing his name to “Guadalupe” in honor of the patroness of the Americas.
He was motivated by a deep love for Christ and His people along with an anger that many of us from the Global North have experienced after landing in a zone of extreme poverty for the first time. He writes in his autobiography:
I hate the bourgeois, American way of life, keeping up with the Joneses, the sophisticated cocktail party, Playboy Club, comfort-seeking “Great Society.” I hate the way blacks, Indians, dark-skinned foreigners are treated and kept marginated. I hate the way the United States tries to control all the countries of the world, and world trade, for its own benefit, trying to export our materialistic way of life to other countries. I hate and resent the way the rich and middle-class Americans and Hondurans can live in big, comfortable houses, have cars, land, and education, while my brothers and sisters, the poor, are forced to live as they do.
This anger also motivated Father Carney to commit himself to a radical form of personal poverty. He owned little more than the frayed white cotton shirt, khaki pants and black work shoes with white socks he wore daily, writing, “To love Christ really is to try to live as he lived. If I love the poor as Christ did, I, too, freely choose to become one with them, live with them, share their lives, besides trying to use my talents to help and teach them.”
Father Carney’s asceticism was matched only by his fearlessness. On one occasion in the late 1970s, he agreed to celebrate Mass for the patronal feast of a town abandoned by another Jesuit who had quarreled with the townspeople over their drunkenness and lewd behavior.
When Father Carney arrived, he was approached by a local businessman of ill repute—the owner of several bar-brothel establishments. Looking every bit the western outlaw, bandolier of bullets wrapped around his waist and pistol stuffed into his belt, the man offered, “Padre, with your permission, I’d like to make a donation to the church to pay for the feast day celebrations.”
“Look, I’m not a thief, nor an exploiter of women, like you,” retorted Father Carney. “You’re shameless! You’re a bad Christian! You’re going to hell!”
The Honduras of today continues to struggle with many of the same problems Father Carney battled during his lifetime—extreme poverty and the exploitation of the poor by powerful, multinational business interests.
The startled man drew his pistol and growled, “Don’t talk to me like that, Father!”
“I have no choice but to speak the truth!” Father Carney yelled back.
A young Spanish Jesuit, Chema Tojeira (who later became provincial of Central America) accompanied Father Carney to the village and witnessed the exchange, later recalling to himself: “This guy really wants to become a martyr, maybe even today! I’m not so sure if I do!”
In 1973, after more than a decade among the campesinos, Father Carney renounced his U.S. citizenship to become Honduran, also officially changing his name to “Guadalupe” in honor of the patroness of the Americas. He had developed a lifelong devotion after visiting her basilica in Mexico City as a young Jesuit.
Father Lupe, as his flock began to call him, continued to speak out loudly against big U.S.-aligned business interests and the landowning Honduran elite, who jointly conspired to keep the campesinos in a prison of poverty. In November of 1979, Father Carney’s outspokenness and sympathies for liberation theology got him arrested, tortured, stripped of his citizenship and expelled from Honduras by the military junta that governed the country.
Father Carney landed in neighboring Nicaragua, where he spent time writing his memoirs and preparing for a martyrdom he had come to see as inevitable. Believing the revolutionary activities he was involving himself in might embarrass the Society of Jesus, he also decided to seek dismissal from the Society of Jesus, which was approved just a few months before his death on June 6, 1983.
As in Father Carney’s time, those who speak out today against injustice in Honduras often pay with their lives.
Father Carney next joined up with a ragtag group of poorly-armed and poorly-trained campesino-insurgents to serve as their chaplain. He persuaded himself that if powerful armies that protected the interests of the wealthy could have chaplains, so too could those seeking a better way of life for their people.
With the column of insurgents, Father Lupe crossed back into Honduras from Nicaragua in early September 1983. Days later, on Sept. 16, word spread that he had been captured and killed.
His body was never recovered, but the U.S. State Department did eventually hand over some personal effects Father Carney had with him at his death—a chalice, Mass kit and his personal Bible. During that time, the C.I.A., with the Honduran army, maintained a secret joint military base and prison in Olancho, Honduras. It is possible the C.I.A. had signed off on Father Carney’s forced disappearance.
Some prisoners incarcerated in the facility later reported seeing Father Carney’s signature etched into the wall of a cell. Five years after his disappearance, a former sergeant of the Honduran army, Florencio Caballero, told The New York Times that he personally had interrogated Father Carney and that the priest had been tortured and executed—perhaps thrown from a helicopter.
In recent years, thousands of pages of “declassified” documents have been released by the U.S. government, but about half the material has been redacted. The C.I.A. has stated that it cannot rule out the possibility that Father Carney was captured and killed by the Honduran military.
In Father Carney’s Bible, recovered from the State Department, a section of Jeremiah 38 is vigorously highlighted. It is the passage where the prophet’s adversaries attempt to silence him by capturing and leaving him to die at the bottom of a well.
In Father Carney’s Bible, a section of Jeremiah 38 is vigorously highlighted, the passage where the prophet’s adversaries attempt to silence him by leaving him to die at the bottom of a well.
Other accounts describe a less dramatic, if still sacrificial death—that Father Carney perished in the jungle from hunger and exposure after imploring the struggling Honduran rebels to leave him behind.
John Donald, S.J., a lifelong missionary to Honduras, now in his mid 80s, worked and lived in community for many years with Father Carney. I asked him what he remembered about the “real” Father Carney, beyond the hagiography.
Father Donald replied, “Well, he was probably quite naive and idealistic to imagine simple campesinos defeating a powerful military.”
“Fair enough. A lot of saints are idealists. So was he the ‘real deal’?” I pressed.
Father Donald softly nodded his head, “Yes, a saint. Beyond a doubt.”
On Sept. 16, 40 years to the day after his disappearance, friends, fellow Jesuits, the people he tried to help and their children and grandchildren remembered “Father Lupe” in El Progreso, in a commemoration organized by the Jesuit-supported Radio Progreso.
The Honduras of today continues to struggle with many of the same problems Father Carney battled during his lifetime—extreme poverty and the exploitation of the poor by powerful, multinational business interests. As in Father Carney’s time, those who speak out today against injustice often pay with their lives.
Reynaldo Dominguez: “The fight that Padre Lupe fought 40 years ago is our fight today in 2023.”
A particularly poignant moment during Mass on Sept. 16, celebrated by newly-appointed Bishop Jenri Ruiz of the Diocese of Trujillo, came during the Eucharistic prayer. At the moment when the dead are typically commemorated, the congregation was invited to speak aloud names of those who had been assassinated in recent times in the fight for justice.
One by one, campesinos shouted names of people they had known and loved. Voices trembled; emotions were raw. These were not abstract cases but close family members and friends.
Two of the names spoken were the brothers Ali and Oqueli Dominguez, assassinated earlier this year. Las Pinares, a mining company owned by Honduran oligarchs with investment from the U.S. steel corporation Nucor, had moved into lands near their village, Guapinol, on the northern coast of Honduras.
Aided by the Honduran legislature, the mining company confiscated protected lands belonging to a national park in order to construct an iron ore mine. The project would rely on water from Guapinol’s only water source, contaminating and drying up the Guapinol River, which the village has depended on for generations to water its crops and sustain life.
It is a story told over and over in recent years in Honduras—the Guapinol project is one of about 150 similar mining projects that threaten campesino lands and water. But this time, the Dominguez brothers and other villagers decided they had had enough. They began protesting, and soon the mining company retaliated, assassinating Ali and another village leader in January of this year, and then, in a second attack on June 15, killing his brother Oqueli while he was at home with his elderly mother, who was wounded in the leg during the assassination of her son.
I spoke to the Dominguezes’ surviving brother, Reynaldo, who lives in hiding with his mother and 42 other villagers who fled Guapinol after the June attack. Another 60 villagers fled in fear to the United States, among the millions of vulnerable refugees showing up at the southern border this year.
Reynaldo is a poor farmer who owns little more than the clothes on his back. But for now, despite fearing for his life, he has chosen to remain in Honduras to continue the work of his deceased brothers, fighting for the rights of his people.
“The fight that Padre Lupe fought 40 years ago is our fight today in 2023,” he told me. “In all the communities that he entered, he talked about organization: We have to organize. In those situations in which our rights are trampled on, we can only confront the situation when we’re organized. ‘A disorganized people doesn’t go anywhere,’ as Padre Guadalupe told us.”
For Reynaldo Dominguez, the witness of Father Carney proved a powerful guide for the current struggle facing his people. His ambition is simple—a life in which he can provide for his family from his own land.
“There are people dedicated to the savior of capitalism, and that is bad,” he said. “We have to live everything as a gift from God: sharing everything—food, goods, nourishment.”
Father Carney “was such a simple man,” Mr. Dominguez remembered. “He’d sit on the ground with the children to eat. That’s the humility we ask for. We ask God to give us this humility and to live well this Gospel that Father Lupe preached.”