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CFCA pays tribute to late Msgr. Gregory Schaffer

May 29, 2012

"Thank you for all the stories."

That sentiment was included in a message from Paco Wertin, CFCA's chief executive officer, to Msgr. Gregory Schaffer, shortly before Msgr. Schaffer passed away. Wertin was expressing gratitude for the stories Msgr. Schaffer shared — stories about the people of Guatemala and what he'd learned from them in 48 years as pastor of a mission parish in San Lucas Toliman.

Monsignor Gregory Schaffer
Msgr. Gregory Schaffer.

Msgr. Schaffer, an emeritus member of CFCA's governing board, died May 24 in St. Paul, Minn., after a battle with cancer. He was 78.

Wertin's message reflected on what Msgr. Schaffer taught the CFCA community through his contributions as a longtime board member and mentor to staffers, volunteers and sponsors.

"You have learned how to be present to and serve those who surround you, no matter where," Wertin said. "You have taught us to search out and look for the presence of God, to reflect on our reality in light of God's Word and then get to work. ...

"And thank you for all the stories. Our world is better and there is hope because you walk with us."

Believing in CFCA 'from the very beginning'

CFCA President and Co-founder Bob Hentzen had known Msgr. Schaffer since 1967. CFCA was founded in November 1981, and several months later began to sponsor children in the San Lucas parish. When Hentzen moved to Guatemala to live and work in 1996, Msgr. Schaffer became his pastor.

"Father Greg believed in CFCA from the very beginning," Hentzen said. "He had known each of the founders long before CFCA was officially born. He accompanied us in our deepest convictions, reflected now in our Hope for a Family program."

Since 1982, CFCA's presence in the parish in San Lucas has grown to include more than 14,000 sponsored friends and their families served through the Atitlan project.

As a member of CFCA's governing board, Msgr. Schaffer reminded the board that sponsorship is more than traditional charity, board chair Scott Wasserman recalled.

"Sponsors find God by reaching across the divide to form an authentic relationship with a real family living in poverty," Wasserman said. "When the board became caught up in budgets and policies, Father Greg drew us back to the lives of real people struggling heroically against tremendous odds."

In a 2005 keynote talk at CFCA's annual dinner, Msgr. Schaffer called poverty a disease that destroys individuals, families, communities and the very fabric of society.

Monsignor Gregory Schaffer
Msgr. Gregory Schaffer meets with people after receiving the Order
of the Quetzal, Guatemala's highest civil honor.

"We know it's the biggest killer in the world," he said. "But what's hard to see is what it does to the very core of the human being. It destroys his or her self-image."

Msgr. Schaffer achieved national and international recognition for his work with the San Lucas mission, garnering honorary doctorates and numerous other awards, including Guatemala's highest civil honor, the Order of the Quetzal. The award recognizes those who have given distinguished service to strengthen the friendship, harmony and goodwill between Guatemala and other countries.

In a 2007 story about the award published on the CFCA website, Hentzen praised Msgr. Schaffer's work.

"The community has so been impacted by the presence, humanity and theology of Father Greg," Hentzen said.

"The Quetzal bird represents the freedom of the human spirit," he continued. "If you catch it and put it in a cage, it will die. It's about freedom."

Msgr. Schaffer was born in 1934 in St. Paul to John Conrad Schaffer and Ann Catherine (Regan) Schaffer, and was the second of 10 children. He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of New Ulm, Minn., in 1960.

In July 1963, Msgr. Schaffer was appointed as a diocesan missionary to the parish in San Lucas, according to a story on the New Ulm diocesan website. He attended an eight-week linguistics course at Georgetown University and took a four-month Spanish and culture course through the Maryknoll Fathers in Guatemala before beginning his assignment.

Early days

In a 2009 interview for a CFCA video, Msgr. Schaffer recounted his early days in Guatemala.

"It was only until after I was able to appreciate and understand, after about 3 years, that I realized, well, maybe I can be of value because I have been forced to listen to the people, not because I wanted to or necessarily thought it was good," he continued. "It was because I had no other way.

"I couldn't speak the language," he said. "I was completely at the mercy of the people. They were very kind and very generous.

"Some people didn't want me around, and so there were certain parts of town you didn't go into because they'd shout at you. I didn't understand what they were saying so that didn't make any difference, but they would spit on you.

"I was an outsider. I was different. And so they were afraid of me. They didn't know what I was going to do. Was I going to come in here and cause more oppression like they had suffered so long? I was told about … how I had to learn to be patient with myself and with the people."

Through this listening process, Msgr. Schaffer found that stories were a good way to impart learning.

"After a period of time and reflection and meditation and prayer, then they become stories and that's what makes them stick," he said. "That's how come I used stories a lot, because that's the way I learned."

Msgr. Schaffer told stories of the Mayan people who taught him, people such as Ricardo and Marcos, who thanked him for the food provided by the mission but helped him to see that what the people really wanted and needed was a way to buy land so that they could produce their own food.

"Holy smokes did that hit me like a ton of bricks," Msgr. Schaffer said.

In a book entitled "Maltiox Tat" ("Thank You Father"), which recounts the history of Msgr. Schaffer and the San Lucas mission, author Chona Ajcot wrote about the development of mission programs such as coffee production, health care, education, housing and land distribution.

In a conclusion to the book, Ajcot wrote, "On behalf of all of my community, I want to thank all those who have contributed in any way to Father Schaffer's work. He has been an instrument of God to bring His message and His help to my people."

Earlier in the book, Ajcot noted how Msgr. Schaffer and the parish accompanied her family through a tough period.

"During the difficult times of the civil war in the 1980s when many people were persecuted, my husband was kidnapped and disappeared," she wrote. "We never heard from him again.

"This was a very difficult time for my children and me, but thanks to Father Greg and the other parish staff who continued to offer me their support and love, I was able to keep working and raise my children."

Awards and honors

In 2003, Msgr. Schaffer received CFCA's highest honor, the Pilgrimage of Faith Award, along with his colleague in San Lucas, Father John Goggin, and layman Gaspar Baran Guoz. The three were honored for their leadership roles in CFCA's Atitlan project.

But Msgr. Schaffer was quick to note that the accomplishments were primarily those of the people.

"The people who are making the real pilgrimage of faith are those who are willing to walk with us, and take all the risks as we struggle to walk with them to a better life," he said in accepting the award.

A funeral Mass for Msgr. Schaffer will be celebrated May 30 at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in New Ulm. A second funeral Mass will be held May 31 at the Church of St. John Neumann in Eagan. A third funeral Mass for Msgr. Schaffer will be celebrated in San Lucas Toliman, with burial in the San Lucas cemetery.

Wasserman, CFCA's board chair, recalled that Msgr. Schaffer often said that he "recharged his inspiration" from the Mayan schoolchildren at his school Masses.

"At the end of Mass, he would look coyly at the kids while saying, "Vayamos …" ("Let us go …")," Wasserman said. "The kids knew this was their cue to shout as loudly as they could, "en paz" ("in peace").

"Our goodbye is the way he wants us to live," Wasserman continued. "So let us shout in farewell: Vayamos ... en paz."

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