Born on November 27, 1934 in Joliet, Illinois, and ordained a Servite in 1959, the gentle, affable priest had already spent close to three decades in global ministry. He was first involved in teaching and Servite formation in California, and then worked for Catholic Relief Services ministering among the poor and those with mental and physical disabilities in Australia, Asia, and the Middle East, developing close relationships with people from different cultures and religions: Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and Christians.
Anyone who really knew "Marty" for any length of time knew two things about him: he generously shared himself, but no one could own him or manipulate him. He was a free spirit, whose only allegiance was to Jesus the Christ and a servant leadership learned from being Jesus' disciple. In his famous autobiographical book "Bound to Forgive: the Pilgrimage to Reconciliation of a Beirut Hostage," he says "the concept of service is very much part of my understanding of priesthood." He'd chosen to go to Beirut, then in a state of war, to minister to those who were suffering there - many of them Shiites.
Yet suddenly the free spirit was held captive for over eighteen months, from that January day in 1985 until July 26, 1986. Suddenly the servant leader who had befriended people of many cultures and religions was at the mercy of people who hated him. Suddenly the priest, called to be "another Christ," was thrust into such inhuman conditions that he was tempted to give up hope and hate his captors.
It was the Christian Scriptures that sustained Fr. Jenco through this eighteen months of darkness that mirrored Jesus' temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane and Jesus' time of torture. Jesus, God's Living Word, was indeed alive and was with Fr. Jenco in his captivity, strengthening him. Undoubtedly he clung to St. Paul's words in Romans 8: 35 - 39:
"Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Trial, or distress, or persecution, or hunger, or nakedness, or danger, or the sword? As Scripture says: 'For your sake we are being slain all the day long; we are looked upon as sheep to be slaughtered.' Yet in all this we are more than conquerors because of him who has loved us. For I am certain that neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities, neither the present nor the future, nor powers, neither height nor depth nor any other creature, will be able to separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus."
John Cusick wrote an obituary for for "The Independent" at the time of Fr. Jenco's later post-captivity death from cancer on July 19, 1996. In it, he describes Fr. Jenco's ordeal in Beirut, and the way he continued to serve by ministering to other captives despite his own inner battles with hatred and hopelessness. He even ministered to his captors!
"Foreigners were particularly at risk of kidnapping by Muslim factions in Beirut in the mid-1980s (Jenco was the 10th of some 71). Nonetheless Jenco believed that he was not the person the Shias wanted to take hostage, rather that he was mistaken for someone else.
"Mistake or not, he was held against his will for more than a year and a half, the first six months in solitary confinement, naked and chained to the wall of a tiny cell in southern Beirut. After this he began to be moved from hideout to hideout, in a number of gruelling journeys. It was at this stage that he was placed in the same room with the Associated Press correspondent, Terry Anderson, the longest-held of all the American hostages, who had been taken captive two months after Jenco.
"Though baptised a Roman Catholic as a child, Anderson had little use for religion as an adult. He attributes his adult conversion to the Catholic faith to his fellow hostage, Lawrence Jenco. Anderson dedicated a piece of his poetry in his book 'Den of Lions' (1993) to Jenco. Upon learning of his death, Anderson said of him, 'He added more to my life than any other man.'
"At various times Jenco also shared a cell with two other American hostages, David Jacobsen, a hospital administrator, and Thomas Sutherland, a university dean.
"It was his great faith in God, rooted in the Christian scriptures, that allowed Jenco to develop a practical spiritual strategy almost unheard of in this modern world. This was demonstrated by a story he told about an encounter which, though he did not know it at the time, turned out to be on the day before his release from captivity. His young Shia guard entered his room. Jenco pulled down the blindfold over his eyes. Until then he had always been addressed as 'Jenco' by his guards. That day his guard said, 'Dear father, can you ever forgive me?'
"In reply Jenco said, 'Sayid, do you remember those early days [of captivity]?' (He described them as very violent and fearful days.) 'Yes, I do,' replied the guard. 'I hated you,' continued Jenco, 'I must ask for your forgiveness.' Chained and blindfolded, the American hostage seeking forgiveness for hating his guard is not a common occurrence.
"After eating his last hostage meal, he read from the Scriptures and wrote this prayer: 'God, give me a new heart and a new spirit. You have asked me to love unconditionally. May I forgive as you have asked me to forgive, unconditionally. Then you will be my God and I will be your son.' He called the book he wrote about his captivity 'Bound to Forgive - the pilgrimage to reconciliation of a Beirut hostage.' (1995). Unlike many of his former, fellow hostages, Jenco wanted someday to return to Lebanon to visit the Shias who held him captive for 594 days."
In an interview with the editors of "U.S. Catholic" magazine, Fr. Jenco revealed the depths of his physical and emotional torture, and his unity with the crucified Jesus which literally saved his soul:
"I once taught a class on death and the different stages of dying - the last stage being the acceptance of our own death. But when I found myself on the verge of being taken hostage, I turned to God and realized that I didn't have the luxury to go through all those stages; I started to accept my own death. The morning of my capture I was wearing a chain and a cross that meant a lot to me because I had received it for my 25th anniversary as a priest. When they threw me in the trunk of that car, the cross came off. For the next 564 days, I lived that cross.
"During the trip to my first place of captivity I was tied up with packing tape and placed under a truck where the tires are stored. I couldn't see or even move, and the car fumes made it difficult to breathe. Certain prayers came to mind almost instantly such as the Jesus prayer - the process of inhaling and exhaling just simply saying, "Lord Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me." This prayer put me very much at peace. Even today, I still pray that prayer when I get excited - it puts me in a different place.
"I also remember that there was a young guard standing next to me at one point, and I tried to look into his eyes. I looked into the eyes of hate. It is a look that stays with me constantly. He looked in my eyes and said, 'You are dead.'
"....From day one, though, when you're tied to a radiator like I was in my first prison, you have a sense of being an animal because they take everything away from you. You eat off the floor, you're allowed to go to the toilet when they decide you go to the toilet. When you are in that kind of a situation, you have to keep reminding yourself, 'I am a person; I'm loved and redeemed, and I do have a destiny.' You can never give into the mentality of 'I am an animal.' Once when one of the guards stood on my forehead with the full pressure of his body and was squashing my forehead, I had to say to him, 'Listen, I am not an insect, I'm a person of worth, I am a person with dignity.'"
When the editors asked him "How did you keep from going insane?" Fr. Jenco replied,
"I created a set of rosary beads out of pieces of string from a potato sack. And I had nothing to read so I would try to recall what God said to me in the Hebrew and Christian covenants. I tried to remember as many verses as I could from the scriptures. I would take a piece of bread and celebrate the Eucharist and hide it so when things got lonely or sad, I could always cling to that Christ. …"
Terry Anderson's powerful poem "Eucharist" reveals the depths to which Fr. Jenco's fellow captives were moved and nourished by his celebration of the Eucharist with them:
Five men huddled close against the night and
around a bit of stale bread hoarded from a
and a candle lit not only as a symbol, but to read
the text by.
The priest is poorly clad, as drawn with strain as
But his voice is calm, his face serene.
This is the core of his existence, the reason
he was born.
Behind him, I can see his predecessors
in their generations back to the catacombs,
heads nodding in approval, hands with his,
tracing out the stately ritual,
adding the power of their sufferings and faith to
his and ours.
The ancient words shake off their dust and come
The voices of their authors echo clearly
from the damp, bare walls.
The familiar prayers come straight out of our
Once again, Christ's promise is fulfilled. The
Miracle is real. (From "Den of Lions.")
Here in the United States, at a time of peace, we can only imagine what it would be like to be a captive, never knowing from one minute to the next whether we would survive. Here copies of the Bible and reception of the sacraments are such an ordinary part of our lives that we can only imagine what it would be like to do without them.
But there is one tragedy and crisis happening in our lives here, one way of carrying the cross of Christ, which affects priests, deacons, and laity: the sex abuse scandal. Perhaps now, more than ever, the story of Fr. Lawrence Martin Jenco can resound in all our hearts. His courage and spirituality in the midst of his captivity, his unity with the suffering Christ, remind all of us that only our union with Jesus can carry us safely through this dark time when the Church and all priests are reviled. His graced moments of forgiveness remind all of us that to be a follower of Christ is to embrace non-violence and radical forgiveness, even in the face of hatred. His devotion to the Eucharist reminds all of us that this is the core of a priest's existence, the reason why he was born, and his predecessors date all the way back to the Eucharist celebrated in the Roman catacombs.
In "Be Healed," (Ave Maria Press) Catholic therapist Bob Schuchts says wisely:
"Our public and personal outrage over dishonorable priests reveals even more how we value this sacrament (of Holy Orders) without knowing it. The clergy sex abuse scandals actually reveal the great dignity of the priesthood. Sexual abuse is a horrible betrayal of trust and innocence, which is going on in every segment of society, in school, in family life, and in our churches. We are rightly outraged at the damage that has been done. But notice when clergy are involved our outrage becomes magnified. The news becomes the featured headlines of our telecasts. Why? I BELIEVE IT IS BECAUSE WE CONSIDER BETRAYAL BY A PRIEST TO BE THE GREATEST BETRAYAL IN SOCIETY. WHETHER CONSCIOUS OR NOT, EVERYONE SEES THE PRIEST AS AN IMAGE OF CHRIST. THEY MAY NOT ADMIT IT, BUT THEIR ACTIONS DEMONSTRATE IT. WHY ELSE WOULD THEY HOLD THE PRIESTHOOD TO A HIGHER STANDARD AND DESERVING GREATER SCORN WHEN VIOLATED?"
Fr. Jenco, please pray for us - for laity, deacons, and especially priests, that we may all remain faithful to our beloved crucified and resurrected Christ and his Church - which is us. Please add the power of your suffering and faith to ours, that, like you, we may one day join you in Christ's gift of resurrection. Amen.