Father Roger J. Landry, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, is national chaplain for Catholic Voices USA.
Over the last few weeks, there has been considerable attention given to an American whom the Church was preparing to beatify — Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.
The attention on Sheen makes sense — even beyond the drama of the ups and downs of his cause for canonization — since he is probably the most influential American Catholic of all time, who has nourished the faith not only of millions during his lifetime but millions still today, more than 40 years after his death.
One of the unfortunate consequences of the hasty announcement and precipitate postponement of the rites raising Sheen to the altars, however, was that it took all of the attention away from the Dec. 7 beatification of another American whose cause for canonization had been getting planned ever since Pope Francis signed the decree authorizing it 13 months ago and the official date was announced in April: LaSallian Brother James Alfred Miller, a native of Stevens Point, Wisconsin, who was martyred for the faith in Guatemala in 1982.
Pope Francis, in his 2018 exhortation on holiness, Gaudete et Exsultate, wrote about the “saints next door,” and in many ways Blessed James is an all-American holy neighbor. He was born in 1944 and grew up working hard on his family’s dairy and chicken farm in Custer, Wisconsin, praying at home, and wanting to be priest. He was fascinated by other countries, reading an encyclopedia from cover to cover to get to know foreign countries and regions where he hoped to bring the faith.
When he entered Pacelli High School and met the Brothers of the Christian Schools, he quickly discerned he had a vocation to share in their educational apostolate. He entered the juniorate of the community at 15 (much like boys at that time could enter high school seminaries at 14), became a postulant and novice at 18, professed first vows at 21 and final vows at 26. He was sent by the Christian Brothers to St. Mary’s University in Winona, Minnesota, where, hoping to share in their missionary apostolates, he got Bachelors’ and Master’s degrees in Spanish.
He was described by those who knew him as likeable, sociable, simple, humble, generous, honest, kind, intelligent, ordered, courageous, prayerful, zealous and hardworking. His fellow Christian Brothers dubbed him a “common, good guy,” “very human,” “a man of union and communion,” who had the “gift of gab,” a perpetual smile, a “deep faith and love for his religious vocation,” and a contagious, boisterous guffaw.
He also, they noted, was perpetually “late to class and community prayers,” something that Cardinal José Luis Lacunza of Panama, presiding over his beatification, joked had prepared him very well for service in Latin America, “where punctuality is not numbered among our virtues!”
His first assignment was to teach Spanish, English and religion for a few years at Cretin High School in St. Paul, Minnesota. While there, he also supervised the maintenance of the school, earning the nickname “Brother Fix-It.” He also coached football — a sport at which, at 6’2” and 220 pounds, he was prone to excel.
In 1969, after a fellow Christian Brother got sick at the Brothers’ school in Bluefield, Nicaragua, “Hermano Santiago” was sent to replace him. For four-plus years, he taught sixth grade, then high school, while also repairing the residence, running a bookstore and starting a soccer team.
In 1974, Brother James was transferred to Puerto Cabezas where, as director of the school, he catalyzed an increase of enrollment from 300-800 students, built an industrial arts complex, offices, an auditorium and science building, taught, founded a volunteer fire department and served as janitor, fixing the plumbing, cleaning the bathrooms and sweeping the floor. His practical know-how won the attention of the Somoza government, who contracted him to build ten more schools in the rural area so that the children of the region would have a chance at an education.
When the Sandinistas took over the country, because of his having built schools for the Somoza government and his general work of education and care for the human dignity of people long neglected, he was put on a list of those to be “dealt with.” His superiors therefore decided to summon him back to Cretin High School in Minnesota. He feared that the people of Puerto Cabezas would see his departure as an act of cowardice and so he wrote them telling them he would return, but he never got his wish. After two years of trying to return to Latin America, he superiors sent him to their mission in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, to teach at the Indigenous House School and work at the Indian Center, training indigenous Mayans in agricultural techniques, leadership skills and basic education.
St. Jean Baptiste de la Salle had told his spiritual sons, “Your zeal must go so far that you are ready to give your life, so dear to you are the children entrusted to you,” and Hermano Santiago took his founder’s instruction very much to heart. His new assignment was as dangerous as the one in Nicaragua. The Guatemalan government regularly conscripted indigenous students into service, even though students were exempt. The government resented the Christian Brothers’ constantly appearing to present documentation to liberate their students. Word quickly spread that members of the G-2 death squad were looking for the “sub-director,” Brother James’ title at the Indigenous House School.
He well knew the danger, but responded with humor, realism and faith.
When asked if he was afraid, he replied, “Are you kidding? I never thought I could pray with such fervor when I go to bed!”
He wrote his sister a month before he died, “One of two frightening things could happen to me in Guatemala. I could be kidnapped, tortured and killed or I could simply be gunned down.” But he added, “You don’t think about that, that’s not why you’re there. There’s too much to be done. You can’t waste your energies worrying about what might happen. If it happens, it happens.”
He added, “I pray to God for the grace and strength to serve Him faithfully among the poor and oppressed in Guatemala. I place my life in His Providence. I place my trust in Him.”
On Saturday, Feb. 13, 1982, after returning with students from a picnic, Brother Fix-It mounted a ladder to repair a broken lamp on the outer wall of the school. At 4:15 p.m., four hooded men, whom the government would later call “subversive criminal elements,” sped past in a car with windows down and submachine guns loaded. They shot Hermano Santiago seven times in the neck and chest, as shocked children looked on from a window in the school.
He fell from the ladder, dead. His funeral was held first in Huehuetenango and then in St. Paul, Minnesota, before he was buried in Ellis, Wisconsin, at the cemetery on the edge of the family farm.
At his beatification on the Huehuetenango sports field, Cardinal Lacunza said he was a “martyr, an excellent educator and an evangelical defender of the poor and oppressed” who “made himself one of us and for us gave his life.”
He suggested that Hermano Santiago died in witness of Christ’s great commission, an icon of Christ the Teacher who died to give witness to the truth.
“There is nothing that bothers totalitarianisms … more than education,” Lacunza said, since the greatest way to ensure that people remain docile to their manipulation is by keeping them “ignorant, without criteria or values.” If education is subversive to tyrants, the Gospel is even more so.
One of the Christian brothers who had known Blessed James throughout his religious life said he loved to do things “very quietly, behind the scenes,” and “never asked for recognition.”
Now, what he did is in the foreground, having received the most important acknowledgment human beings can.
His beatification shows that the Lord continues to exalt the humble.
It also shows that the greatest in the kingdom of heaven remain those who keep the faith and teach others to do the same.