Father Roy Bourgeois is a troublemaker.
The 74-year-old has been roiling the waters for four decades as a social justice activist. Having the courage of his convictions has cost him dearly, including prison and ostracism.
During an Aug. 3 talk at First United Methodist Church, 7020 Cass St., he’ll address human rights issues he’s devoted his life to. In the eyes of the Catholic hierarchy, however, he won’t be speaking as a priest.
In 2012, after refusing Vatican orders to publicly recant his support of women being ordained, he was excommunicated from the priesthood and expelled from the Maryknoll order he’d served 45 years.
“It was the most difficult thing I’ve gone through but I could not go against my conscience,” he says.
Sanctioned or not, Bourgeois still considers himself a Man of God.
“According to the Vatican I have been put in exile. I cannot say Mass. But I will always see myself as a priest. A pope or bishop cannot take away that sacred vow I made with God: ‘Thou are a priest forever.’”
He remains committed to the women’s ordination movement.
“You can dismiss me from the priesthood but you cannot dismiss the issue of gender equality. This issue is not going to go away.”
He acknowledges being stripped of his official clerical roles has left him “very disappointed and hurt,” adding, “It’s kind of a grieving process and it’s going to take time. I’m still trying to bounce back. I’m hoping before too long I’m going to get back that joy I once had.”
His Omaha appearance, one of many speaking engagements he makes, is sponsored by Call to Action, a progressive movement of Catholics working for justice and equality.
When not presenting somewhere Bourgeous serves as the sentinel for School of the Americas Watch. He co-founded SOA as an independent monitor of the former School of the Americas program at Fort Benning Ga. where he says scores of Latin Americans have been trained in combat skills, commando tactics, counterinsurgency and torture. In his watchdog role he lives in an apartment adjacent to the base’s main gate, where thousands of protestors gather every November for a vigil.
Militias and death squads trained there, he says, caused untold “suffering and death” in places like El Salvador. He says SOA efforts are “all about expressing our solidarity with the people of these countries who are on the receiving end of our wrong foreign policy.”
Before Bourgeois became a priest he was a U.S. Naval officer who volunteered for combat duty in Vietnam for the “adventure” of it and to “climb the ladder” in a fast-track military career.
“I was a very patriotic young guy. I believed our cause was noble. I did not question our country’s foreign policy leaders.”
The carnage of war changed him. “My faith became more important in Vietnam. I came home and entered the seminary.” He soon formed a group of Vietnam vets opposing the war. “I realized I had to speak out. To be a peacemaker I had to do more than pray.”
As a priest his social justice agenda was influenced by living and working among the poorest of the poor in a La Paz, Bolivia slum. The people were oppressed and terrorized by the military state.
“I knew people who were arrested tortured, killed.”
His criticism of the military dictatorship, one of many then propped up by the U.S. government, got him detained and deported.
“I came back with a lot of anger.”
He was disillusioned that few Americans knew what their government was doing in Bolivia or El Salvador, where Maryknoll nuns and Jesuit priests were massacred by U.S- supported thugs.
“Many of us were very shaken by that. I decided I had to do more than just say Mass and sermons. What’s needed is more than words. Faith without action is dead.”
He orchestrated a protest at Fort Benning that led to his arrest and sentencing for criminal trespass and impersonating an officer. He served a year-and-a-half in a federal prison.
“Prison was hard but no regrets.”
From prison he wrote letters that trained media attention on the School of Americas, which came to be branded “School for Assassins” and “School for Dictators.” After getting out he led a fast outside Fort Benning to raise awareness. He worked with Congress and Amnesty International to expose what went on there.
“In 2000 we came very close to closing it in Congress.”
He says all the attention created “a public relations nightmare” for the Pentagon. “They had to do something and in 2001 they changed the name of the school to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. It’s cosmetic. To us it’s still a school that promotes violence.” He still stand watch outside the base. “We’re not going away until the school shuts down. I’m happy to report several countries have pulled out” of the school.
While the Maryknoll community supported his anti-violence campaigns they disapproved of his gender equity stance.
“I didn’t realize how deep the sexism is in the church. The all-male Catholic priesthood has lost its way. We have come to see women as a threat to our power, our privilege.”
He kept speaking out about the marginalization of women in the church despite warnings to keep silent but he says, “I could not shut up.”
He continues speaking out despite having lost so much because he doesn’t see that he has a choice.
“I learned when there is an injustice silence is the voice of complicity.”
His 1 to 4 p.m. Omaha program, which is free and open to the public, will also screen the documentary Pink Smoke Over the Vatican.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.