For five years, I had been haunted by the 26 hours of suffering and isolation my mentor, Father Robert Schwenker, must have endured as death approached.
On March 17, 2004, Father Bob, missionary Oblate of Mary Immaculate and 1958 graduate of Notre Dame, died in Bogotá, Colombia, the result of a hit-and-run.
- See the tribute article:
- The World of the Desperate and of the Saint
At the time I was in Papua New Guinea, and could attend neither the funeral in Bogotá nor any of the commemoration services in the various cities in which he had served in the United States. I did what I could. I wrote a tribute to Father Bob, focusing on our shared search for God in the poverty of a men’s shelter in the Bronx, New York, in the early 1980s.
Now, five years later, during Holy Week, 2009, I had the means and the time to make a pilgrimage to Colombia to see where Father Bob had lived, worked, died and been buried. I wanted to bring resolution to that part of my life.
In Bogotá, a cordial and talented community of Oblates welcomed me into their fold. Lay associate Orlando Puentes, who credits Father Bob with changing his life by asking him to establish a center to help children in extreme poverty to eat, study and graduate from high school, took me to the poor, often violent, southernmost settlement of Bogotá: Ciudad Bolivar.
He showed me where Father Bob had lived, the room where, on the morning of March 16, 2004, he had laid his clothes out to begin his day after his strictly kept morning run.
He took me outside to see where Father Bob used to run around a nearby basketball court and up the narrow dusty streets to the Salesian high school where he served as chaplain. We then drove to the highway leading out of the settlement, to the curve where around 6.30 that morning Father Bob had been found, still alive.
OMI Provincial Father Roger Halle later filled me in on a few details. Someone in a passing bus must have cell-phoned the emergency. When they arrived, the police found Father Bob sitting up. As one officer looked under his running shirt to see if he was wounded, Father Bob threw up blood.
Because he was in his running gear, Father Bob carried no identification. He remained alive some 26 hours in the local hospital, but as a result of the massive wounds to his head he could not communicate.
There had been much talk over the last five years as to whether Father Bob had been attacked for his watch (no one seems to know where it went), or had seen another crime and so had been assaulted (a dead body was found nearby), or whether in fact he had been hit by a large vehicle, picked up and then abandoned just outside the residential area (this last scenario appears to be the most probable).
But now as I knelt on the paved side of the road, the cause of death disturbed me little while the 26 hours of lone suffering became even more acute. There were many who loved him; countless more who respected him. But no one was at Father Bob’s side at the moment of his greatest need.
Because of busy schedules, Father Bob’s community did not notice his absence until parishioners in the nearby mission reported that he did not show up for his regularly scheduled 6 p.m. Mass. As night fell, calls went out to hospitals and, ultimately, morgues, but he was not discovered until the next morning. Mr. Puentes was called upon to identify the body.
As destiny would have it, the morning of Good Friday I toured Ciudad Bolivar and the highway where Father Bob was found. That afternoon I attended services at the mission of Mochuelo Bajo, where Father Bob had also served. During the Gospel drama of Jesus’ trail and crucifixion, I could not but think of Father Bob’s agony and death.
Unanticipated, however, was the consolation that overcame me in that most rudimentary of ecclesial structures — with the noise of the muffler-less passing trucks and the sight of the lackadaisical dog resting under the bare wooden bench — when the narrator of John’s Gospel reported that Jesus gave up his spirit.
So, too, did I imagine the last minute of Father Bob’s life. However much he may have felt abandoned, like Jesus on the cross, his suffering was over. It was finished. Father Bob, too, gave up his spirit.
It was, however, a seminarian who had lived with Father Bob for two years, Darwin Barraza Hernández, who gave me further insight into Father Bob’s death. Anyone the least bit acquainted with him, Darwin recounted, knew that Father Bob sought God in ever-greater poverty. Several years earlier he had lived in a wooden shack in Posón, another poor, often violent neighborhood of Cartagena; in many ways he lived even poorer than his neighbors. He possessed but three changes of clothes, which he washed out meticulously. It was he who had set the mission up in Ciudad Bolivar, the poorest area of Bogotá.
It was when Father Bob wanted other Oblates to live the same sort of poverty that he saw as essential to the Oblate mission, Darwin continued, that the same argument would begin: “Yes, Bob. You can preach poverty, even live poverty, but in the end you can never be poor. Not really. Not like the poor of the earth. If you get sick, you’ll be cared for in the best of hospitals with money from an established worldwide ecclesial community. You cannot ultimately be poor — and don’t try to force it upon us.”
In his death, it occurred to me while speaking to Darwin, Father Bob had indeed lived the poverty of the lonely, the poor, the abandoned of the world.
Thus it was that that Good Friday I found consolation in Father Bob’s death. Indeed he had achieved the spiritual poverty he quested, but at a certain point the suffering stopped. Like Jesus, abandoned on the cross, he had given up his spirit.
On Saturday Orlando took me to Father Bob’s simple grave in a far-northern suburb of Bogotá. We prayed and talked and told stories. When it was time to leave, I asked to have a minute alone. I touched the earth with the palm of my hand and for about the dozenth time in two days allowed the tears to swell. I asked Father Bob to pray for me and my family. Then I left.
That evening, in another OMI mission of Muelle, within the larger parish of Sta Juanade Lestonac in Bogotá, with the Easter Vigil set up on an outdoor basketball court, I was given the honor of preaching. I spoke of Father Bob, his life, his mission, his vision. I mentioned the end of suffering, of Jesus on the cross and Father Bob alone in a clinic — both giving up their spirit. I quoted the consoling words of Isaiah — “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great tenderness I will take you back. . . . For a moment I hid my face from you, but with enduring love I take pity on you” — and mentioned St. Paul’s understanding of rebirth in baptism.
But it was Mary Magdalene and the other Mary who most spoke to me that evening: terrified but with great joy, they had seen the risen Lord.
Quietly, not with trumpet blast, but gently, on the other side of suffering, Jesus had risen.
For perhaps the first time in my life that evening I felt the hope of the resurrection, that somehow what T.S. Eliot calls in Four Quartets the “primitive terror,” the abiding agony of others, “nearly experienced/ Involving ourselves,” would somehow come right. Certainly there remained in me no doubt that Father Bob’s life, quest, suffering and death would prevail as truth, and that that truth would, paradoxically, ultimately prevail over suffering and death.
In Father Bob I felt the resurrection of Christ. This is what I told the people of Muelle, many of whom knew Father Bob, at the Easter Vigil, 2009, five years after his death. This is what I feel today.
Daniel J. Stollenwerk, STD, who received a degree in American studies from Notre Dame in 1980, worked with Father Robert Schwenker in several apostolates in his youth, maintaining contact thereafter, visiting him in Haiti and Mexico. He lives with his family in Auckland, New Zealand, where he teaches religious education at St. Peter’s High School. In December 2008, St. Peter’s awarded him a teacher’s scholarship, which allowed him to travel to Colombia. He can be reached at email@example.com.