A Saint in St. Paul: Celebrating Brother Miller’s beatification

| December 3, 2019 | 0 Comments

Brother James Miller

On Feb. 13, 1982, Brother James Miller was fixing a wall outside the school where he worked in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, when three masked gunmen shot him in the chest and neck, killing him. He was 37.

Brother James Miller, who was born in 1944 in Wisconsin and shot to death in Guatemala in 1982, has been recognized as a martyr by the Vatican and will be beatified. He is pictured in this image courtesy of the Christian Brothers of the Midwest.

Brother James Miller, who was born in 1944 in Wisconsin and shot to death in Guatemala in 1982, has been recognized as a martyr by the Vatican and will be beatified. He is pictured in this image courtesy of the Christian Brothers of the Midwest. CNS photo/courtesy Christian Brothers of the Midwest

Just two years prior, he had been living in St. Paul, teaching Spanish and coaching soccer at Cretin High School, which his order, the Christian Brothers, founded. His heart, however, was with the Brothers’ mission work in Central America, where he had already served twice before.

And so he had gone back.

Last year, Pope Francis recognized his death as martyrdom, which paved the way for his Dec. 7 beatification in Huehuetenango.

Brother Miller had two teaching stints at Cretin, which merged with Derham Hall in 1987. The first was from 1966 to 1971, during which he professed final vows to his community in 1969. The second was 1979 to 1980. In between, he worked in Nicaragua, twice, his time split by graduate studies at what is now St. Mary’s University of Minnesota in Winona. He returned from Nicaragua to the Twin Cities in 1979 because his community thought his life might be at risk due to the Sandinista revolution.

In 1980, he left Cretin again — first for Mexico and then Guatemala, where he worked at the school Casa Indigena, which was run by the Christian Brothers. His focus was on the leadership development of his indigenous students. He taught English, religion and art to secondary-level students, and he did school maintenance. A farm boy, he also began an experimental farm to help the students learn agriculture.

His murder is thought to be in retaliation for his efforts with his fellow Christian Brothers to keep their students from being forced to join the military. The brothers who worked with Brother Miller in Guatemala said he didn’t get involved in the country’s politics, but that he was targeted because, as a religious brother, his work helped the poor.

Three days after his death, Archbishop John Roach celebrated a funeral Mass for him in the Cathedral of St. Paul. (Read the homily on page 14.) Following Brother Miller’s beatification, a miracle attributed to his intercession would be required for his canonization and the formal title “saint.”

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Remembering a martyr

On Feb. 16, 1982, Archbishop John Roach of St. Paul and Minneapolis preached the following homily in the Cathedral of St. Paul at a memorial Mass for Brother James Miller.

Courtesy Christian Brothers

We celebrate this evening the life and death of Brother James Miller, a man of peace and goodwill who lived a life of service to the Lord Jesus Christ, and who knows the true peace and fullness of the Kingdom of God. I express my sincerest sympathy to his family, to the Christian Brothers and to the thousands whom he served as teacher, friend and spiritual brother.

I suggest it would be more than God asks of us if our joy in James Miller’s new life in Jesus Christ were not tempered by a deep sense of sorrow, pain and some powerlessness at the events which took his life. The insanity of the circumstances of his death, and the cowardice of his murderers shocks and angers; only the faith that sustained Brother James supports us through our tears to breathe thanks to Almighty God as he embraces James Miller in eternal life.

Since 1681, the Christian Brothers have dedicated their lives to lifting people from ignorance and bondage. In life, James Miller took people from the hills and gave them a combination of knowledge and hope. In death, he fulfilled the vision of the founder of the Christian Brothers.

He gave his life for the poorest of the poor. As educator and as Christian apostle he had touched the lives of many. Last Saturday the God who held his hands in his work in the name of Jesus Christ took his hands in death.

I believe with all my heart that the God who graces his life will grace his death and will lift others to stand in his place to do what he did. You have to ask yourself how long this sickness and violence can continue. Those who struggle to assist people in raising themselves from an inhuman level of poverty, to change the course of their lives, live with the realization that progress will be slow. Week after week they experience the pain of people who live with the realization that life is cheap. The beauty of James Miller, and those who serve God’s poorest in that part of the world, is that they serve with faith and an absolute commitment to the belief that that’s where the Lord wants them.

Brother James, like Archbishop Romero, the four women slain in El Salvador a year ago, Father Stan Rother and many other priests, brothers, sisters and lay catechists made a commitment to serve God’s poor. In doing so, they embrace the fear which must be a part of their lives. We need look no further than to their lives to find our heroes and heroines and, while I don’t use the word ‘martyr’ lightly, they would pretty well fit my description. They witnessed to his Gospel; they died in service of the Lord.

At this moment, we who celebrate the death of James Miller must find healing in our faith. The only way of viewing death as a Christian is to view it through the eyes and through the life of Jesus Christ. Our faith does enable us to offer the prayerful hope that as James Miller has shared in the experience of the death of Jesus, he now shares life with him in his resurrection.

St. Paul said to the Corinthians, “If our faith in Christ is limited to this life only, we are the most pitiable of people.”

We must be allowed our grief for James Miller, but it would be an affront to his own realistic faith not to express that grief in terms of his sharing in the Resurrection. Christian life is incomplete without death. Brother James is now the complete Christian.

In further describing death, Paul said, “Continually we carry about in our bodies the dying of Jesus so that in our bodies the life of Jesus may also be revealed. So death is at work in us, but life in you.”

It seems to me that’s the precise description of Brother James Miller’s life and death. Day by day he and those with whom he worked lived in the shadow of death so that those whom they serve might know a renewed life in Jesus Christ.

As I prepared this homily, I promised myself I would not politicize this celebration of life and death. It is impossible, however, to ignore the conditions which lie at the base of that tragedy.

Last November, the bishops of the United States issued a statement on Central America. We were criticized in some quarters because we were charged with saying too much. Tonight in my mind and heart I feel we said too little.

Must those who serve in Guatemala and places like it live in the constant fear that at any moment they may be the victims of violence by irresponsible people who respect neither others nor themselves? In God’s name this must stop. There will be other deaths. There will be other persecutions. The tragedy will be compounded if the day comes when the world is calloused in facing the death of the James Millers of this world.

We cannot allow that to happen. We must challenge the political and economic structures which not only keep people under oppression but condone deliberate violence.

The hard reality is that the real roots of violence are found in people’s hearts, and to change people’s hearts we have to change people’s values. If liberty is not treasured, if life is not valued, then violence will flourish. In this crisis of civilization, it is not possible to remain neutral or detached either as persons or as a nation. We are linked as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ with those who struggle to be free. We are also linked with them as citizens of a country whose government policy affects development, and in some instances non-development, in their countries.

God knows violence begets violence, and not much more. Never peace. You and I must support those who fight the oppression of the poor, fight for the rights of those who have no rights.

It is impossible to extinguish the flame of hope for freedom in people’s hearts, but we cannot afford the luxury of being spectators in that struggle. We must hold up the arms of our sisters and brothers who speak for and who work for God’s poor. Pray that a loving Father will change the stony hearts of oppressors. Pray for an end to this tragic insanity which prompted James Miller’s death.

May the Lord who blessed his work in life grace him in death. May he rest in peace.

Transcribed from the archives of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

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