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Why the Defrocking of Fr. Roy Bourgeois Will Test the Spirituality and Sincerity of SOAW Protest


The ultimate test, the one that reduced some to nearly catatonic states, was known as the "black box." Each recruit was nailed into the smallest one he could be squeezed into. Usually, it was only a matter of minutes before the recruit spilled his guts.

Not long after Bourgeois was nailed in, he found it hard to breathe... Soon his arms and legs were going numb, and he started reciting "Our Fathers' over and over. After what seemed like an eternity, the box was torn open and he was yanked out by the hair... He felt disoriented yet triumphant, knowing they hadn't broken him.(pg. 12)

Once in Vietnam, however, he was shaken when a close friend was killed in an ambush. He also began to spend time at an orphanage operated by a kindly French priest and the reality of the war began to challenge his Navy indoctrination.

Many of the children were missing limbs; scores had bloated stomachs or infected sores... Some had been abandoned by desperate mothers. The lucky ones had no scars and all their limbs. But many were amputees or had been deformed by shrapnel or napalm... One orphan asked him why the United States was doing all this. Bourgeois didn't have an answer. ( Disturbing the Peace, pg 13-14.)

As Fr. Roy began to look for people who shared a similar sense of compassion, he learned of the Maryknolls. They were known as the "Marines of the Church" because they worked with the poorest of the poor in countries that most missionaries would not enter. He astonished his former fiancée, his family, his former football coach and his friends in Louisiana when he entered the Maryknoll order in 1966. His brother maintained it was more likely that he'd become president than his brother Roy would become a priest.

In the Maryknoll seminary, Fr. Roy retained his southern upbringing and Navy beliefs. He was outraged when Fr. Daniel Berrigan came to speak at his Maryknoll seminary. In Fr. Roy's opinion, Berrigan was a traitor, and attending Berrigan's lecture would be "a betrayal of all those guys who had lost their lives making the world safe for the peaceniks." ( Disturbing the Peace, pg. 19)

Fr. Roy went to the seminary's rector and demanded that Berrigan's invitation be withdrawn. "The rector listened patiently, acknowledged the seminarian's feelings and assured him that he would not be required to attend the lecture." ( Disturbing the Peace, pg. 19.) Fr. Roy boycotted Berrigan's lecture.

Like many in the process of conversions, Fr. Roy struggled through an emotional and intellectual limbo. "His ideological props had been kicked out from under him, and he hadn't yet constructed another core system of beliefs. While he ceased making even the weakest justifications for the war, he stopped short of condemning it." ( Disturbing the Peace, pg. 27.)

But six years later, he was a different man. In 1972, Fr. Roy was called before the seminary's rector for a different reason. The rector wanted him to explain why he had just been arrested in Washington, D.C. during a protest against the continued U.S. bombing of Vietnam.

In the rector's office, Bourgeois started explaining that he was trying to act on his beliefs, trying to live out his faith. Then, he took the offensive, asking the rector why he, the leader of their community, had not joined them. The rector, Father Thomas Keefe, said nothing. But the next spring, Keefe, too, publicly joined the cause. ( Disturbing the Peace, pg. 29.)

As you read his story, you can see how much pain he felt as he became alienated him from the worldview of his family and hometown. His parents struggled to understand how their son could change from being a high school football champion to the town's decorated Vietnam veteran, then a priest and later, after an arrest at the Pentagon, "behind bars like a common criminal." ( Disturbing the Peace, pg. 9.)

When he returned home after his time working with the poor during the dictatorship of the U.S.-supported Hugo Banzar in Bolivia, his alienation from the world he knew in Louisiana was unbearable.

His family knew something had happened to him, but they had no clue as to what it was or why he was so angry. He would rant about the United States supporting Hugo Banzar's repressive regime... Nor did they know anything about his detention and expulsion from Bolivia. So much of his inner turmoil remained a mystery to them. (Fr. Roy) felt just as alienated at the local parish church, which he found "so clerical, so formal. In Bolivia, the church was in the streets, where the people were."

In the pulpit, he was hot under the collar; he wanted to speak about the realities of Bolivia... Needless to say, his message didn't sit well with many parishioners, who he said "wanted little spiritual lollipops." ( Disturbing the Peace, pg. 53.)

During his 40 years, Fr. Roy has often tested the limits of the Maryknoll community, raising alarm over his various arrests at protests or his challenges to the conservative pro-military wing of the Catholic hierarchy. But Fr. Roy was articulating a core Catholic value of afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted -- so that even some of those who questioned him became his allies.