Former Kansas farmboy tills distant fields
by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Bishop Herbert Hermes feels safer now than he’s felt in years.
Murdering a bishop, he figures, has become more trouble than it’s worth.
Sadly, his comparative safety has come at an enormous price — the loss of a friend and fellow worker for human rights in Cristalandia, Brazil.
Bishop Hermes, 78, is a Benedictine monk from St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison. For years, he served the people of the Territorial Prelature of Cristalandia as their bishop. Now, in retirement, he serves them still.
So, too, did Sebastian Bezerra da Silva, until he was found dead Feb. 27.
Da Silva’s death was no accident. He had been strangled and his body had been left half-buried in an anthill at Charity Farm, about 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) from the town of Gurupi in the state of Tocantins.
Bishop Hermes, who lives in the Brazilian town of Paraiso — “Paradise” — knew immediately why his friend was murdered: to stop efforts to protect human rights.
“I consider myself as the heart of our human rights centers, and Sebastian was the brain,” Bishop Hermes said later. “We see that when the brain is destroyed, the heart is [broken].”
Yes, the heart was broken.
But it was also outraged.
And more determined than ever.
Power in the blood
How did someone born in Shallow Water end up as a bishop and human rights advocate in the middle of impoverished, rural Brazil?
“In my blood is a mission calling,” said Bishop Hermes.
Bishop Hermes is descended from Luxembourgers who settled near Wichita and then moved to western Kansas. They were among the stoutly religious settlers who challenged the notion that there was no law west of Wichita and no God west of Dodge City.
Six months after Bishop Hermes and his identical twin brother Norbert were born, his family moved to Scott City. The Hermeses were salt-of-the-earth types: economically humble and spiritually rich. There were nine children, five of them boys.
“We were the only Mass servers in the parish for years and years,” said Bishop Hermes.
In 1951, he went to St. Benedict’s College in Atchison, which was run by the Benedictine monks of St. Benedict’s Abbey. He became a novice at the abbey in 1953 and took solemn vows in 1957. He was ordained a priest in 1960.
The missionary calling was awakened in the future bishop when the abbey began to establish mission foundations in Mineiros, Brazil.
Later, some monks went to help an American missionary bishop at Rui Barbosa in Bahia, Brazil.
“I volunteered as a [transitional] deacon and was accepted after [priesthood] ordination,” said Bishop Hermes.
Mineiros, located in the state of Goias, reminded him a lot of his native western Kansas. Here were ordinary, God-fearing farm people. His own simple and devout life as a pastor ended when he got a call to be bishop of a prelature (or “diocese in formation”), a place too poor to be a diocese, located in the state of Tocantins.
Be my shepherd
He wasn’t sure he wanted to be a bishop.
When he got the letter of appointment, he went to the chapel to pray before the Blessed Sacrament.
“Why me?” he asked. He didn’t feel comfortable among the hierarchy, or with people kissing his ring and calling him “Your Excellency.” He was just a western Kansas boy who, as a monk, went to be a pastor in a rural parish in Brazil.
The prelature had experienced four years of chaos and neglect.
An American missionary bishop who had been there for 30 years had spent his final two incapacitated by Alzheimer’s disease. His successor, a younger Brazilian bishop, was in office for only nine months when he had a heart attack and died after receiving a transplant.
“It kept going through my mind that, without a bishop, they were a flock without a pastor,” said Bishop Hermes.
“So I said, ‘OK, I’ll be a pastor.’
“I always felt God used the people to call me to be a pastor, and not the pope calling me to be bishop of Cristalandia and a member of the hierarchy.”
The Prelature of Cristalandia, which is comprised of parts of western Tocantins and a few counties of the state of Goias, was named for the beautiful crystals that were once discovered there. Parts of the land look like abandoned Colorado mining towns, said the bishop.
Just as the mining companies exploited the land for its crystals, so, too, did they exploit the people who came to mine the crystals. When the easily found crystal ran out, the miners’ descendants became the landless squatters of today, some tricked into working and living in slave-like conditions.
“[The employers] come to the slum areas and make all kinds of propaganda about high wages,” said the bishop. “These unemployed grab [onto their promises] like crazy. They load [the workers] in trucks and take them way out into the interior at night, and give them a lot of liquor on the way.”
When the workers arrive, the employers take all their documents away and say they owe their “employers” for transportation and the liquor, food, and housing. And the only place to buy necessities and supplies is from a company-owned store — and at exorbitant prices.
Mining has been replace by large scale agriculture. Tocantins is a transitional land between the plains of the south and the forested Amazon basin. It has savannas and forests, so logging (often illegal) and cattle (often grazed illegally on government and Indian land) are the major industries. Soybeans are a major export.
“[Corporations] come in and deforest,” said the bishop. “It’s just wrecking the environment. They clear off the land to plant soybeans for exportation, and they kick off the poor squatters who have no title to the land, and they have no way to produce food.”
Years ago, the bishop tried to help some Indians who had been driven off their lands by cattle ranchers, said his brother Norbert.
There were rumors that this activism put Bishop Hermes on a hit list.
He received death threats for his trouble, confirmed Hermes.
“He and a Lutheran minister collaborated to correct this abuse,” he added. “And one time, when he was planning to journey up there, he was warned some were threatening to kill him, so he didn’t go at that time.”
Bishop Hermes would write letters to his family in Kansas and his fellow monks in Atchison, telling about his struggles and the threats.
“He was living his vocation, and he knew the risks involved in his ministry and being bishop,” said Father Michael Hermes, a second cousin of Bishop Hermes and president of Bishop Ward High School in Kansas City, Kan.
He took as a role model another cleric, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, he said.
“I was always proud of him,” said Father Hermes. “You’re worried because you love the guy, but you’re proud of him for standing up for his people.”
Let my people go
Bishop Hermes’ plate was full before he was even ordained a bishop on Sept. 2, 1990.
The prelature was poor and the people were not used to supporting the church financially. There weren’t enough parishes or priests.
Nearly everyone had been baptized Catholic, but Mass attendance was poor. Emotion-driven Pentecostal sects were energetically seeking to entice Catholics into their churches.
Many people were used to more “regal” bishops, and the sight of a bishop in street clothes, making pastoral visits and eating humble food, shocked them.
A sick, elderly woman he visited said, “Now I really believe in God because the bishop came to visit me.”
Bishop Hermes contended with all these challenges. But he didn’t stop at narrowly defined “church” issues or concerns.
“I can’t separate the weekdays from Sundays, just like I can’t separate the spirit from the body,” he said.
He saw that the poor and powerless of Cristalandia were groaning under poverty and injustice as the children of Israel had under pharaoh.
“My whole vision is liberation, as God freed the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery,” said Bishop Hermes.
“I try to free [them] from all kinds of slavery, not only physical, but also in health, education, human dignity and rights — from illiteracy and oppression of all kinds,” he continued. “And I see this as building the kingdom of God. We are supposed to be free and have the fullness of life.”
His vision is also connected to the Incarnation: We glorify God when we make more perfect the dignity and rights of humans, who are made in the image and likeness of God, who sent his son to be one of us.
That is why he created the Center of Human Rights of Cristalandia in 1994. In surrounding towns, he also established offshoots, called Human Rights Nucleos. These entities were established as nonchurch civil entities in order to protect the church from lawsuits. Bishop Hermes also made them ecumenical, inviting Protestants to join.
After his retirement on Feb. 25, 2009, Bishop Hermes received the support of bishops in and around Cristalandia to continue his human rights work.
One of Bishop Hermes’ disciples was Sebastian Bezerra da Silva, from the town of Araguacu.
Da Silva became an active member of the Nucleo in his town, and later became articulator/educational advisor of the center. At the time of his murder, he was executive secretary of a five-state district (including Brasilia, the federal capital) of the National Movement of Human Rights.
Da Silva, who was investigating police brutality at the time of his murder, had been getting death threats by telephone. He reported them to two close friends, but asked them not to tell his wife, Bishop Hermes, or anyone else. He was thinking of moving away from his home in Paraiso.
“Sebastian was much, much more than a paid functionary, since he was — like me — impassioned for promoting human rights and social justice, which is why we synchronized so well,” said Bishop Hermes.
The murder, its investigation, the legal proceedings that followed and the behaviors of key people involved reeked of corruption and coverup, said Bishop Hermes.
According to the autopsy, da Silva was tortured “with refined cruelty” — hardly necessary for a carjacking. A military policeman, a friend of the bishop, said it sounded like the work of a professional torturer.
The trial resulted in a prison sentence in August for only one of the three brothers involved in the murder. Bishop Hermes wasn’t surprised. Moreover, he believes the men were acting on the orders of more powerful people anyway.
“There are a lot of people who don’t like us and our work,” said Bishop Hermes.
Prophet of hope
Now, close to 80, and freed of his responsibilities as bishop, the former Kansas farm boy has no intention of retiring to the safety and comfort of American life.
Father Kieran McInerney, a monk who himself ministered for 33 years in the monastery in Goias and in the Diocese of Rui Barbosa in Bahia, Brazil, sees Bishop Hermes continuing down a road he started long, long ago.
“I think he cares an awful lot about the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed,” said Father Kieran.
“Ever since I’ve known him, he’s been involved in legal procedures to help the poor and the oppressed,” he added. “That’s not just something he started in Cristalandia. He had that deep interest before [he became bishop].”
Now, so many years later, little is changed about his fellow missionary monk.
The bishop’s hair is gray now, of course.
And although he now speaks “impeccable classical Brazilian Portuguese,” said Father Kieran, he occasionally struggles to find the right word in English.
But if Bishop Hermes’ enemies thought the murder of da Silva would put an end to his advocacy for the poor, they need to think again.
When someone suggested that the Human Rights Center be closed, for example, his answer was quick and firm.
“No, that’s what they want.
“So we’ll do just the opposite.”
Undeterred by the widespread systemic corruption in Brazilian society — and even the death of his friend — Bishop Hermes talks like a man whose work is not yet done.
“Ah, yes,” he said, “I see hope.”
In fact, the bishop represents that very quality to the people of Cristalandia.
“Some consider me a prophet of hope,” he said simply.
“And of change.”
How to help
For more information about Bishop Hermes’ work, go to the website at: www.brazilmission.net.
To support his work, donate online or make checks payable to St. Benedict’s Abbey, c/o Treasurer – Bishop Herbert Hermes, OSB, 1020 N. 2nd St., Atchison KS 66002, or to Bishop Herbert Hermes, OSB, c/o Norbert Hermes, 3348 N. Muir Rd., Salina KS 67401.
To support the work of missionaries worldwide, give generously to the World Mission Sunday collection this weekend