At 74 years old, Fr. Larry Rosebaugh was legendary in the peace movement for his anti-war actions, and for his decades of service to the poor in Latin America.
His faithfulness stretched over many decades. Inspired by Dorothy Day, Larry joined the Milwaukee Catholic Workers in the mid-1960s. This work led to his participation in the 1968 Milwaukee Fourteen action, when his group burned 10,000 selective service files with homemade napalm. For that, he spent two hard years in prison.
In 1975, he hitchhiked to Brazil to serve the poor under the leadership of Dom Helder Camara. One day police arrested him as he distributed food in Recife. While in prison, guards beat him and threatened to kill him. Had it not been for international pressure, he might have vanished, as had so many others who stood up for the rights of the poor.
They released him finally, just as Rosalyn Carter toured South America. She agreed to meet him, and he told her about the atrocious lack of human rights in Brazil.
As the ’80s dawned, his resistance took on new dimensions. In 1981, he protested at the Pantex nuclear weapons facility in Amarillo, Texas, and for that spent a year in prison. There he received a visit from Bishop Leroy Matthiesen — 2009’s winner of the Pax Christi Teacher of Peace award — and shortly afterwards the bishop called upon all Catholics who work on nuclear weapons to quit their jobs. He would raise funds, he promised, to support families as they searched for employment elsewhere.
In 1983, Larry joined Fr. Roy Bourgeois and another friend on the grounds of Fort Benning, Ga., where Salvadoran death squads were being trained. Late one night, the trio scaled a tree with a speaker and blasted an audiotape of Archbishop Romero’s last sermon, which called upon all soldiers to disobey orders to kill. It was a voice the soldiers well knew. Lights went on in the barracks in an instant, and guards scoured the wooded area in search of Romero’s voice from on high. For this bit of audacity, Larry did eighteen months.
Then there was his arrest at a nuclear missile silo at the Whiteman Air Force base in Missouri. After that, he moved to El Salvador, to continue his mission work. During the last decade or so, when not helping out his mother in St. Louis, he lived in Guatemala, first in a poor, remote parish, and then during the last three years, among the homeless poor, often on the gritty streets.
It was his highest calling, his most profound source of meaning. He wrote a friend recently: “This Holy Week, I had three good days of retreat by myself in a great quiet place with beautiful trees and nature, only to view the devastated living conditions of the poorest just across the way. To have that reality so close made for an even better Holy Week for me.”
While serving in Guatemala, Fr. Larry was shot and killed in a gangland-style robbery. News reports say that two masked men brandished weapons and stopped Larry’s car. Inside were four other priests, all Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, on their way to a regional meeting. The gunmen robbed them of cash and cell phones, and then opened fire. A priest from the Congo suffered serious wounds; Larry died instantly.
His friend Fr. Carl Kabat shared with me his fond thoughts. “I knew him for 55 years.” Carl, now retired, lives in San Antonio, TX and had spent 17 years of his own life in prison for nonviolent anti-war activities. He had just written to Larry and they were planning Larry’s final return to the States, to live and work together in St. Louis.
Carl recalled playing baseball with Larry in the seminary, teaching high school students together in Duluth, and getting arrested together over the years. “Larry was a very humble person, a beautiful person, very quiet. He was known as the saint among us because he never made too much noise, while I was known as the knucklehead.”
Carl heard that Larry had died, just before crossing the line on that fateful day in May 2009, in protest to an impending execution at Missouri’s death row. The next two days he spent in jail, remembering Larry. “That was the right place for me to be to memorialize his beautiful life.”
During these times of division, disillusionment, and despair in the church, Larry’s life and death stand out as a stunning reminder of what the church could be, what priests could be, what every Catholic and Christian could look like.
Not too long ago, he wrote his memoir, “To Wisdom Through Failure.” The title says a great deal. No mainstream publisher or book store would sell a book about the spirituality of failure; indeed, they market books about God’s plan for our success, wealth and power, as if Jesus never advocated poverty or was executed by the empire. Larry, however, turned aside false first world spiritualities, and risked failure every day trying to follow the abandoned, crucified Jesus.
Larry shows us what we could be, if we but dared the same risks — radical, humble, gentle, Christ-like disciples living in solidarity with the poor, in resistance to empire, periodically imprisoned for our nonviolence, willing to give our lives nonviolently for humanity, in prayerful trust of our beloved God.