New York priest feels Peruvian earth beneath his feet

Fr Burns shares a laugh with survivors of violence. Image: Sean Sprague.

Fr Burns shares a laugh with survivors of violence. Image: Sean Sprague.

Despite growing political violence in Peru during the 1980s and early 1990s that took the lives of thousands, including some of his friends and  neighbors, Maryknoll Father Tom Burns continued to live with a poor family in a shantytown of Lima.

"When you're in the midst of a violent situation, thank God you repress your fear," said Fr Burns who has been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder that included flashbacks. "Otherwise you can't function.  But when you're out of the situation, it hits you, and you have to deal with it."

Although he grew up in humble conditions, the extent of the poverty and the daily threat of terror were new to Fr Burns. He had come from New York City, specifically Queens, where he attended two elementary schools (St Bartholomew in Elmhurst and Our Lady of the Cenacle in Richmond Hill)  before his family settled in Jackson Heights and Blessed Sacrament Parish.

His immigrant parents from the poorest parts of Scotland and Ireland taught him to serve the poor with compassion.

"I need to feel the earth beneath my feet," said Fr Burns. "I'm the type of guy who moves from the heart and then to the head."

Father Burns was ordained a Maryknoll priest during 1969 and was assigned to the Maryknoll Peru Region, where he has spent his entire missionary life. For all these years, he has walked with the people in their struggle  to overcome poverty and to live fully.

Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers is the overseas mission outreach of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, following Jesus in serving the poor and others in need in 27 countries. All Catholics are called to mission through baptism, and Maryknoll's mission education outreach in parishes and schools throughout the country engages US Catholics in mission through prayer, donations, as volunteers and through vocations.

During 2011, Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers will commemorate its centennial with a theme of The Gift of Mission - The Maryknoll Journey.

These missionaries will celebrate as they continue their journey into the  next 100 years to share God's love and the Gospel in combating poverty, providing healthcare, building communities and promoting human rights.

To feel the earth beneath one's feet in a place such as Pamplona Alta meant Fr Burns had to serve in a world where babies die prematurely, victims of the slow death of hunger due to the burden of an unjust economic debt. It also is the place where peasant refugees, many of them widows and orphans, settled after escaping the violent death of the war.

Seeking Justice With Peru's Poor

By sharing the people's hunger for life, Fr Burns was motivated to passionately search for justice. During 1979 and 1980, while back in the US, he lobbied Congress on the debt issue as Maryknoll's justice and  peace representative from Peru. He helped push for a precedent-setting amendment mandating that government debt-readjustment programs contain policies that protect the poor.

But, this search for justice for the poor on the south side of Lima placed Fr Burns on government and rebel watch lists. A government undercover agent recorded the baptismal talk of a pastoral agent in his parish as she prepared the parents for the baptism of their newborn.  Years later, when the Shining Path launched a campaign of car bombings and assassinations, Fr Burns was threatened by a member of his parish who had joined the rebels. He came to realize that the warning was for his criticisms of the Shining Path in his homilies.

The work for justice and peace for the more than 50,000 displaced people who had taken refuge in south Lima clearly placed Father Burns' life in danger. He also was concerned about the safety of the family with whom he lived for almost all his time in south Lima.

"Of course my involvement and its implications for the family worried me," said Fr Burns, "but if I didn't commit myself, their situation would be just as much at risk over the long haul. We had to stop the terror...It  is a risk you take and, thank God, it turned out all right."

Now, with the Shining Path virtually defeated except for a small faction roaming the jungle region, Fr Burns continues to seek justice for the surviving family members of the almost 70,000 people killed during the political violence. After a government report documented the atrocities committed by both sides, Fr Burns founded the South Lima Chapter of the national "Never Again!" movement.

"The role of the chapter is to make sure the report's recommendations are implemented," explained Fr Burns, "recommendations which deal with reparation such as health insurance, scholarships and land titles for refugees and their children."

If feeling the earth beneath one's feet means feeling the pain of the people, it also means feeling their joy and the joy of belonging. Fr  Burns, that kid from Queens, New York, belongs in Peru and he belongs to the Peruvian people. 28 years ago, Clorinda and Jacinto Moreno invited Father Burns to live with them and their children. They, along  with many Peruvians, have accepted him as one of their own.

"This family is my family," said Fr Burns. "I'm the godfather of all  the kids and grandkids...I'm also very spoiled!"

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