Exemplars of the Church

Exemplars of the Church Fr Francisco Javier Gutiérrez Díaz
Paul Keenan looks at those pastoral workers lost to violence in the last 12 months

Statistics by their nature are flat, dry things. Designed more for the summation of the ‘state of play’ for, say, Wall Street stocks or the standing of political parties at a given time, statistics offer an emotionless picture that fails to capture the human stories lying between numerical rows and columns. Only through a deeper reading can those stories be found.

So it is with the reports in recent days of those pastoral workers of the Catholic Church who died by violence in 2015. A cursory examination of the Vatican’s compilation of victims reveals a figure which can be sub-divided across four continents: eight in the Americas, five in Africa, seven in Asia and two in Europe. Another way of viewing the numbers offers 13 priests, four religious sisters and five lay people.

A grand total of 22, this number offering the opportunity to compare with previous years, for example 2014, when a high of 26 was reached. A reduction to be welcomed, perhaps, but going further back hardly cause for celebration.


The year 2013 saw a terrible upswing in the number, a near doubling over the far more ‘acceptable’ count of 12 for the year 2012. Overall, from 2000 to 2015, some 396 pastoral workers (including five bishops), make up the greater list of the dead.

This of course, is another weakness in statistical lists; taken in isolation, the same dry telling is gained, and perhaps quickly forgotten.

This can be especially true in the current climate of genocide (let’s call a spade a spade even if some leaders continue to baulk) against huge swathes of the Christian community in the Middle East. What is a figure of 22 set against those many thousands upon thousands already killed or under immediate threat?

But the 22 are vitally important, as their witness is that of the Church in all its settings everywhere in the world. As the Vatican itself stated in releasing the 2015 figures: “They all lived in human and social contexts, administering the sacraments, helping the poor, taking care of orphans and drug addicts, following development projects or simply opening the door of their home to anyone. And some were murdered by the same people who they helped.”

This latter statement is true for the majority of cases arising last year, wherein the kindness of the victims was taken as evidence of a weakness to be exploited for monetary gain.

So it was with the first and last victims of the year. Fr Jean-Paul Kakule Kyalembera of Democratic Republic of Congo was murdered in February when bandits stormed his church as he closed up, shooting him in the head as they committed their robbery. Dr Rita Fossaceca, an Italian radiologist working with a Catholic charity in Kenya on a project to aid orphans, was murdered in November as she tried to shield her mother during a violent robbery at their home.

In between lie the tragic stories of others, targeted either by the desperate poor they ministered to, or murdered for daring to speak up for the poor they served, an irony serving to illustrate the precarious roles played by pastoral workers in many societies.


The ongoing strife in Syria offered its share of heart-rending stories too. From the dual loss of brothers Anwar (21) and Misho (17) Samaan in April, who died along with their mother in a rocket attack, to that of Safouh al Mosleh, of Caritas Syria  who, having evacuated his family and other civilians to safety from ongoing fighting, was killed when the family home was shelled.

Then there is the cruel linking of the fates of Srs Jose Mariya and Amala Valummel, who died months apart in Kerala, India. When Sr Jose died in April, her death was judged to be a tragic accident which had resulted in a fatal head wound. Only when Sr Amala died violently in September during the course of a robbery did an altogether more sinister story emerge. The suspect for the murder-robbery, Sathish Babu, confessed to not one but two murders and an exhumation and autopsy latterly added Sr Mariya to the 2015 list.

Twenty-two individual stories of lives attesting to the Church’s universal mission, all united in the canon of those who sacrifice all in the service of others.

But even at that, the whole story is not told, and the proffered figure of 22 does not go far enough. The Vatican also noted that, despite the painful list of the dead, violent deaths do not account solely for the suffering of pastoral workers in 2015:  “There is still much concern regarding the fate of other pastoral care workers kidnapped or who have disappeared, of whom we have not had any news, such as the three Congolese Augustinian priests of the Assumption, kidnapped in the Democratic Republic of Congo in October 2012 [and] the Italian Jesuit Fr Paolo Dall’Oglio, abducted in Syria in 2013.”

Sadly, the numbers in the category of ‘disappeared’ grew by one on December 23 when Franciscan Fr Dhya Azziz, a priest in Syria was abducted. This is the second occasion that Fr Azziz has suffered kidnapping, and once again, the faithful of Syria whose presence caused him to remain hold a collective breath as they await word of his fate.

All should pray he does not become the first on the inevitable list of fallen witnesses of 2016.

The 22 pastoral workers killed in 2015 were:
  • Fr Jean-Paul Kakule Kyalembera, February 26, in Democratic Republic of Congo.
  • Fr Adolfo Enríquez, March 11, in Spain.
  • Fr Fernando Meza Luna, March 21, in Colombia.
  • Fr Francisco Javier Gutiérrez Díaz, April 6, in Mexico.
  • Safouh Al-Mosleh (Caritas Syria), April 7, in Syria.
  • Anwar Samaan, April 10, in Syria.
  • Misho Samaan, April 10, in Syria.
  • Sr Jose Mariya, April 17, in India.
  • Sr Stefani Tiefenbacher, April 19, in South Africa.
  • Fr Goodwill Onyeka, June 1, in Nigeria.
  • Fr Antonio Alves de Almeida, June 10, in Brazil.
  • Fr Luis Alfonso León Pereira, July 15, in Colombia.
  • Fr Carlos Martinez Perez, July 16, in Spain.
  • Fr Alex Pinto, discovered July 20, in Venezuela.
  • Sr Irma Odete Francisca, July 24, in Brazil.
  • Fr Dennis Osuagwu, August 15, in Nigeria.
  • Fr Luis Jesus Cortez, August 29, in Argentina.
  • Sr Amala Valummel, September 17, in India.
  • Cesare Tavella (aid worker) September 28, in Bangladesh.
  • Fr Antonio Magalso, September 29, Philippines.
  • Fr Erasto Pliego de Jesus, discovered November 17, in Mexico.
  • Dr Rita Fossaceca, November 28, in Kenya.