The Good Shepherd
He served 17 years in a parish a bit off the beaten path
By Jeanne Devlin
FATHER Thomas McSherry says it has been good to be a missionary priest in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, these past 17 years.
Then again, he observes, wryly, it was good being a parish priest in Hobart, too.
In both cases, says Father McSherry, he was simply being an obedient priest as best he could. "I was just trying to cooperate," he said, with the grin of a gregarious Irishman.
Yet if prodded, he will admit that back in the early 1980s, after trips to Africa to see the work of a priest friend, he became personally intrigued by the plight of places like Guatemala. "There were lots of people, lots of needs, lots to be done," recalled Father McSherry.
And he had always been a doer.
"When I became a priest," said Father McSherry, "my mother's response to the news was, 'who will take out the garbage now?' " He shakes his head at the memory, but he is the first to say that his strong sense of self, the self-image that allowed him to step into a role that had last been filled by Oklahoma's first martyr, Father Stanley Rother, is rooted in what he got from his parents, his mentors, his Catholic educators.
"My Catholic upbringing," he said, "valued truth, and it gave me an accurate picture of myself." "I'm not Stan Rother," he said simply. "I've kind of had to work with what God gave me -'- and not what God gave Stan Rother." "I admire Stan deeply," he added, "but God did not give me that same gift exactly." Seventeen years after he agreed to go to Guatemala, Father McSherry believes what finally made him journey south into an ancient land of Mayan Indians and Guatemalan Catholicism is rooted in the very meaning of what it means to be a missionary: "It means to be sent," he explained.
"I felt called to be sent." He describes it as a call within a call. Some are called to priesthood. Some are called to parish work. A few are called to missionary parish work. He took it as a sign that he fell into the latter group when the one to mention such an assignment to him was Franz Rother, Father Stan's father.
McSherry was 38 years old at the time and part of the first group of Oklahomans to return in 1983 to the mission since Stan's murder there in 1981.
"He said 'It was time,' " recalled McSherry. "Franz said, 'The people really need a priest here.' " His words planted a seed in the young priest.
In January of 1984, when Archbishop Salatka queried his priests tl about who would be interested in going to Guatemala, McSherry responded in the affirmative.
He found out in May he had the assignment. "Good," he responded, an Irishman for once without extra words. Eventually, he says the archbishop asked him for a five-year commitment. "Now it's been 17 years," said FatherMcSherry, "longer than anyone."
If he had his druthers today, he would stay. But as a priest, he says, a he goes where his bishop sends him d (maybe there's a little missionary in all priests), and as of this summer, that is not Guatemala. S His assignment ended July 31, and p the Oklahoma Church at the same a time turned Micatokla - the Catholic Mission of Oklahoma - over to the local Diocese of Solola. "I think the best way to understand my move is it was time for the local a diocese to take it over," he wrote to the Sooner Catholic July 18. "Oklahoma (and I) came to help... The archbishop has always been concerned that our stay in Santiago Atitlan end at an appropriate time. The discussion of our departure has been an ongoing one (one brought to the fore by increased local vocations here). I am sad to be leaving but understand it is time to turn it over to someone else." "Missionaries, I think," wrote Father McSherry, "are like good teachers or mentors. They do give their best and move on." He says priests from Santiago Atitlan now serve in Italy, Ecuador and Venezuela, making it more likely than ever that they would also serve at home.
That said, his greatest hope is that people will remember "the gene-rosity, friendships, faith sharing" that occurred between the Oklahoma Church and the Church of Santiago and Cerro de Oro." And he believes the bonds between Oklahoma Catholics and the people of Santiago Atitlan can continue if both parties are willing to put in the time and effort to cross the barriers of language, culture and distance, "I will miss most the good people I have come to know," said McSherry. "I will cherish most the sharing of good and bad times with our people."
As printed in the Sooner Catholic Newspaper August 12, 2001