Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Fr. Christopher Hartley: Living with -- and fighting for -- the poorest of the poor

Back in the '50s and '60s, Catholics used to draw inspiration from the tales of bold missionary priests who braved all kinds of persecution to spread the gospel and the faith. You don't hear these stories so much anymore in a Church that has grown too comfortable and too cautious. This may explain why the dashing -- and daring -- Spanish missionary priest, Fr. Christopher Hartley, has recently been the subject of not one, but two books about his work...plus an earlier documentary, The Price of Sugar, narrated by Paul Newman himself. The documentary is no longer available for purchase but can be viewed on YouTube (see below).

The two recent books about Fr. Hartley, both in Spanish, are En el púlpito de la miseria by Joana Socías (La Esfera de los Libros, 2013) and Esclavos en el paraiso by Jesús García (LibrosLibres, 2012). Both books focus specifically on Fr. Hartley's missionary stint in the Dominican Republic, where his courageous advocacy for the Haitian immigrant workers in that country's sugar plantations earned him multiple death threats and an eventual request from the local bishop to leave the country in 2006.

How did a man who was born into a wealthy family -- heirs to the Hartley's jams empire on his father's side and members of the Spanish aristocracy on his mother's -- come to choose a life of solidarity with the poorest of the poor? The following interview, which was published in Spanish in the March-April 2013 issue of Hogar de la Madre (English translation by Rebel Girl), sheds some light on that part of the story. At the end, we have supplemented it with excerpts from another interview Fr. Hartley has given that focus specifically on his work in the Dominican Republic.

The Hogar de la Madre interview

Fr. Christopher Hartley Sartorius is a diocesan priest from Toledo (Spain). He has devoted his life to serving others in different places. From the Bronx, where he was for thirteen years with Mother Teresa, to Calcutta, where he was during another period of his life, to the bateyes [the sugar workers' towns] of the Dominican Republic, where he lived under death threats. Since April 2008, Fr. Christopher Hartley Sartorius has been living in Gode, Ethiopia, a village where no Catholic priest has ever set foot.

Fr. Christopher was born in London, England, in 1959. He's the son of an Englishman and a Spanish woman. When he was five years old, they moved to live in Spain. And at a very young age he entered seminary.

Was your family Catholic?

My parents were a mixed marriage. My father, when I was born, was Anglican and my mother, Catholic. We're Catholic because of my mother's faith and religion. We grew up in an atmosphere of huge respect for religion. In fact, I recall as a boy, that my father always share with us, participating in Mass and more.

When did you enter the seminary?

At 15. I went to the Toledo seminary. There I finished high school and then I took the clerical course of studies which, in those days, consisted of two years of philosophy and four of theology, so that at 23, without even being the age indicated by canon law at that time, I was ordained a priest.

How did Mother Teresa of Calcutta come into your life?

At Christmas, 1976. My father who, as I said, wasn't Catholic, gave me a book called Mother Teresa: Her People and Her Work. I was 17 then and had already been at the seminary two years. When I sat under the Christmas tree and opened the present, on seeing the book and the photos, I had a sensation, a feeling, and I said to myself, "I want to devote my whole life to this." I think that moment, that December 25th, defined my missionary vocation forever. I was certain that this was going to be God's design, the score He had written for me.

When did you meet Mother Teresa personally?

It was in August 1977. I was 18 then. That summer I had gone to London to work as a volunteer in one of the houses of the Missionaries of Charity. One week after I got there, Mother Teresa, who was on her way to Calcutta, came. That was the first time I saw her. The last time was 20 years later, in 1997, a few weeks before she died.

How was that first experience with the Missionaries of Charity?

That experience in some way very strongly reinforced the desire to participate in her life, in her charism, in her commitment to the poorest of the poor and the certainty of the real presence of Jesus in the poorest and the neediest.

Mother Teresa wrote me a letter in which she told me to "love the poor and be holy, be a holy priest." I've kept it until now. It was as if a program for life were condensed into two sentences. And that has been so etched in me as a life plan that, while I was a seminarian until the day I was ordained, six years later, I spent every summer vacation, Holy Week, Christmas collaborating with the mission, the mission task, missionary work and especially service to the poorest of the poor in many countries in the world. Even before my ordination, it's what I wanted to do and what I've done ever since.

How did Mother Teresa influence your spiritual life?

Meeting Mother Teresa put me face to face with the real presence of Jesus in the world. Such that, just as she couldn't have conceived of her life without the poor -- like a monk can't conceive of life without the walls of his cell, she helped me discover that the poor are the reason for being of my life and priesthood.

Mother Teresa helped me to see with contemplative eyes, to find the face and presence of the crucified Lord in every poor person, to discover in the suffering world the ongoing Passion of the Lord until He comes in His glory. That helped me to specifically define my missionary vocation and within the missionary vocation, the desire to always be with the poorest of the poor.

For you, is being a priest the same as being a missionary?

Being a priest is one thing, but being a missionary clarifies one's priestly identity in an extraordinary way. Being a priest isn't the same as working in primary evangelization where no one has ever evangelized, which is the task the Church has entrusted me with for now and in which I've been involved for nearly thirty years.

What have been your destinations as a priest and missionary?

I was ordained by Pope Jonh Paul II on November 8, 1982. Immediately after the ordination, Cardinal Marcelo González Martín, in whose diocese I was incardinated -- the Diocese of Toledo -- sent me to one of those tiny villages in the mountains of Toledo. Not even two years later, the Cardinal gave me permission to go to New York, to the Bronx, at the request of Mother Teresa, and there for the first 8 years, I worked with the sisters among the poorest of the poor in that city. Then, at the World Youth Day in Santiago de Compostela, Cardinal O’Connor, the Archbishop of New York, asked me to take charge of the office of vocations in his Archdiocese. I was in that office from '90 to '92. In '92, Cardinal O'Connor sent me to Rome to study. I got my bachelor's and doctorate in Theology at the Gregorian University. In '95, I came back to New York as pastor of the old St. Patrick's Cathedral. In '97 -- which was when I saw Mother Teresa shortly before her death -- I went off as a missionary to the Dominican Republic and was there in the eastern region in the diocese and province of San Pedro de Macorís, in San José parish, almost 10 years, and I left in 2006. In 2007, with the permission of the new Archbishop of Toledo, Cardinal Cañizares, I went to Ethiopia, Africa, where I am now.

What's your mission in Africa?

I'm in an area that's never been evangelized. I celebrate Mass alone every day of the week. On Sunday, 2, 3, or 4 more Catholics come to Mass. They're people who work for the non-governmental organizations or the United Nations, or some Ethiopian Catholics who are stationed there, working for the government in education or development. In short, people who have been sent in from elsewhere, because it's an 100% Muslim area. The Orthodox Church has a presence too, but I'm the only Catholic priest there. The closest Catholic priest to me is over 700 km away. Also, since the Ethiopian Church is very needy, I try to collaborate with the Missionaries of Charity who have 18 houses in Ethiopia. There are over 120 sisters. I give retreats, spiritual exercises, training courses for them and they also ask me to go to other countries. Recently, I was in Kenya giving spiritual exercises to the juniors (professed women religious who are still in formation). This year I've also been to Poland where they asked me to give spiritual exercises. And right befor Christmas 2012, they asked me to give the Spiritual Exercises to all the Italian clergy and nuns who were working in Ethiopia. As a former colony of Italy, there's a very significant presence of Italian clergy and nuns. So it was the first time I preached the Exercises in Italian. It was a wonderful experience of great missionary witnesses who have given a lifetime to the evangelizing work of the Church in this country.

Have you ever been afraid?

Yes, I've been very scared. Especially in the Dominican Republic. I got death threats. They pointed a shotgun at me. I've been through a lot of danger, been through many extremely difficult moments. The last two years in the Dominican Republic I had to go around accompanied by a soldier for my personal security, under orders from the government.

This helped me a lot to find out that the pretty words we say and preach -- about the good shepherd giving his life for his sheep -- are one thing, but you really know if you're willing to give your life when your life is in jeopardy, when you've been afraid.

I found out that courage doesn't conquer fear, that only love conquers fear and when I realized how much I loved those people with whom I was working, then I understood that I had conquered fear, but only because of the love God instills and the grace He gives, to be able to be available to give oneself for them.

Where do you get the strength to remain faithful?

Logically, the life of a priest is a life of friendship and spousal union with Christ. That's what consecrated virginity and priestly celibacy is.

We know that what is indivisible in the heart belongs to Jesus and that, as St. Paul says, we no longer live for ourselves, but for him who died and rose for us. That is, that life belongs to Him, that it is a life that has been given up, a life surrendered.

Prayer as a personal relationship with Christ is what makes us able to stay in the trench, to keep our hand on the plow, to keep rowing into deep waters. Prayer as a meeting of lovers, prayer as betrothal.

In the Vespers of the Common of Pastors, the brief response says, "This is a man who loved his brethren and ever prayed for them."

It's through prayer that one discovers that to pray is to love, that whoever prays, loves, and whoever loves, prays, and whoever doesn't pray has already stopped loving. That ability to love that Jesus instills through prayer, through personal prayer, through liturgical prayer, in the different ways prayer manifests itself, but that definitely mean being with Him, looking at him, as St. Teresa says, that's what sustains an existence that is incomprehensible in itself.

Fighting the "Sugar Barons"

The Hogar de la Madre interview, focusing as it does on Fr. Hartley's formative years and spirituality, does not give much insight into why he became such a controversial figure during his time in the Dominican Republic.

Fr. Hartley came to the Dominican Republic in 1997 at the invitation of the newly ordained bishop of the newly formed Diocese of San Pedro de Macorís, Msgr. Francisco Ozoria Acosta, having been recommended by a friend, Fr. Antonio Diufaín Mora, a fellow Spaniard who was serving as pastor in San Antonio de Padua Parish in El Puerto, and is now working in Moyobamba, Peru. Bishop Ozoria, who eventually expelled both priests, stated in an affidavit filed in the defamation lawsuit against the producers of "The Price of Sugar" by one of the plantation owners featured in the documentary (Vicini Lluberes v. Uncommon Productions & William Haney, U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts), that Fr. Hartley's ministry began well.

In a December 2012 interview with José Manuel Vidal for Periodista Digital (English translation by Rebel Girl), Fr. Hartley describes the circumstances he found and the actions that led to his expulsion:

Vidal: What did you find in the Dominican Republic?

Hartley:I thought I was going to be the priest of a poor village, in a poor country, but I didn't have any idea about human rights, or labor rights, because nobody had violated any of my rights. Like many others, I had always taken my rights for granted; they were things I hadn't even thought about...But being in the Dominican Republic, a Brazilian nun came and told me I wasn't allowed to go on the plantations of my parish. They put fear in me, and it was also the first time I had experienced fear. Three months later, a Haitian lad appeared and asked me if I was never going to go to the bateyes to celebrate Mass. That pierced my heart. I talked with my friend and we ventured to the nearest batey.

Vidal: What's a batey?

Hartley: They're villages, inside the cane fields, where the cane cutters live with their families.

Vidal: Do they live or barely survive?

Hartley: Barely survive, rather. Without electricity, with no access to safe drinking water, without a labor contract, cutting cane at 90 cents a ton, without collecting...Because what they received were some vouchers that they could only spend at the little company store, leaving them with 10% of the voucher, of course. Even the mules that pulled the carts had an insurance policy, but the cane cutters didn't have a contract, or health insurance, or access to health care, or education for their children.

Vidal: What did you do when you learned all that?

Hartley: I wasn't prepared for that reality. The only thing I knew was that I was seeing something hellish, horrible, but I wasn't able to understand the scope of the situation, much less its causes and roots. I just saw vile barracks. Later, moreover, I found out that at the end of November, when the sugar harvest began, human trafficking started too. Thirty to thirty-four thousand people cross over from Haiti, through the mountains, and are recruited into clandestine camps on the mountainous border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. There, the sugar industry (the state one too) and the family oligarchy, with the complicity of the state policy, the Dirección General de Inmigración ("immigration service"), the Dirección Nacional de Inteligencia ("intelligence service"), the G2 (which is the military intelligence service), and the M2 (navy intelligence), bring the Haitians to work in the sugar cane harvest, either through the mountains or in boatloads monitored by the Dominican navy. It is such a disgrace, that the electricity in the houses of the Dominican millionaires is produced by the sugar mill with the bagasse (what's leftover from the cane, which is ground). With that fiber, once the juice (the cane juice) has been extracted, electricity is generated and that electricity is sold to the multimillionaire families and resorts.

Vidal: Did you know the brutal exploiters as well as the exploited?

Hartley: Yes. Unbridled luxury and human infamy live side by side. I always call the exploiters by name: they're the Fanjul, Vicini and Campollo families.

Vidal: Is that what brought you problems?

 Hartley: Many. I was threatened with death. I received anonymous phone calls, and the last two years I had to live with police protection, with an armed man from the National Police 24 hours a day. I couldn't celebrate Mass without a man with a shotgun by my side, And I was very frightened, because I knew they were going to kill me.

The book Jesús García wrote about my experience has helped me to reflect, because you often experience things, one after the other, but you're not aware of the process. It's in the calm period that you find out.

I wrote the epilogue of the book and in it I explain that fear isn't overcome by bravery or bravado, or even courage. Fear is only really conquered by love. So when I realized how much I loved those people, I realized that I would be willing to do anything for them. Even give my life. That's how I understood the Gospel -- not in the classroom of the seminary in Toledo where they told me that the good shepherd lays down his life.

Vidal: Did Cardinal López Rodríguez's action hurt you especially?

[Translator's note: The Cardinal has publicly repudiated Fr. Hartley, accusing him of discrediting the Dominican Republic, saying that such behavior is unworthy of a priest, and even suggesting that his counterpart in Toledo needs to make Hartley shut up.]

Hartley: It makes me sad, but it's a reality that is very marginal to this story. One of the things I try to do, though I'm not managing to do it too much in this interview, is to talk as little as possible about myself and as much as possible about them. Because once, Juan Bautista Vicini, a member of one of the sugar grower families, accused me, with an article from El Mundo in his hand, of wanting to make myself famous at the expense of the poor.

There's a Chinese proverb that says that when the wise man points to the moon, fools just look at the finger. I don't want the fools to just look at Christopher. I want these people to be talked about. Whether the Cardinal did such and such to me or they pointed a shotgun at me is immaterial. I'm not Batman with a Roman collar. I want what's happening to them to be known and what can be done to help them. I've collaborated with this book as a vehicle, not for my story to be told.

The destitution in the bateyes exists because of the greed of three multimillionaire families, who think they're super Catholic, that they've bought everything, that they have the whole world at their feet and are the masters of the Dominican Republic. It's very easy to determine the cause -- avarice.

Vidal: But shouldn't the blessing that the institutional Church has given to this situation also be denounced?

Hartley: Totally. But what's most important is to be aware of the conditions in which these people are living, because what has to change is their life. And those who have the power to change that destitution are the members of the three families. For me, the most explosive combination in the world is money and arrogance. During the time I was there, various documentaries were made, among them one by Paul Newman that's called "The Price of Sugar". The producers of that documentary, who are from Boston, were sued in the United States, in the Federal Court of Massachusetts, for alleged defamation of the Vicini family. Defamation by me, in statements I made in that documentary. For whatever reason, they didn't threaten me, but El Mundo also received a dossier from one of the largest law firms in the U.S., on which the Vicini family has spent an inordinate amount of money about the same topic. With only half that amount, I would solve the problem of poverty in the bateyes.

The struggle continues

Now you would think that after being threatened with death, sued, publicly denounced by the Church hierarchy as well as condemned in a governmental resolution, and expelled from his missionary post, a man would think twice about continuing a protest campaign. You might even think that the demands of his new assignment in Ethiopia would leave Fr. Hartley no time to focus on the injustices still being committed in his old community. You would be wrong.

In 2011, Fr. Hartley, who had already gotten the U.S. Department of Labor to focus on the Dominican Republic's sugar cane industry in its annual reports on international child labor violations in 2008 and 2009, wrote to then Secretary Hilda Solis to "formally request that the Department of Labor's Office of Trade and Labor Affairs launch an immediate investigation into the egregious violations cited below by the US Department of State, by the US DOL's Office to combat Child Labor, Forced Labor, and Human Trafficking (OCFT), and by a qualified independent observer on the ground in the Dominican Republic, as these pertain to the obligations and commitments of the US and the Dominican Republic as Parties to the CAFTA-DR and as members of the ILO." The priest is pursuing similar campaigns in several European Union countries.

Video - "The Price of Sugar"


  1. Oh, I wish I could help in some way. This is just a bewildering and horrific situation. No truer saying than "money is the root if all evil." We can see it every day of our lives, but Father Christopher brings it and slams it into our faces, while always keeping love, humility and the bravery of Mother Theresa in his heart. If thoughts of caring and goodwill will help, Father, I am right by your side. If writing will help to spread your cause, which should be the cause of everyone in the world, then I will write. There is one indisputable thing in life - when the families of Vicini, and the other two finally die, their legacy will be their crimes and disgust for them and the government that allows it.

  2. Padre, escrivame, soy Juana Santana

  3. God bless you and help you change the hearts of those you are trying to change. The world needs you, so look after yourself.

  4. God bless and keep you. Look after yourself because the world needs you for a very long time. May you change the hearts of the greedy.