Chain-smoking, dishevelled, even hearing confessions in a bar: Fr. Martin Royackers, SJ, never ceased to amaze. According to several sources, he rarely made a good first impression. Yet this Canadian Jesuit with a razor-sharp mind was a strong advocate for human rights, deeply committed to social justice, and firmly rooted in his relationship with God. He died in 2001 in Jamaica, murdered in front of his church for reasons still unknown, but probably related to his apostolate.
A diamond in the rough
Born in 1959 on a farm in Ontario, Martin Royackers discerned his vocation as a Jesuit early in life, entering the novitiate at eighteen. During his formation, he worked on the Jesuit farm in Guelph, alongside marginalized people. “He welcomed people into the community that I would never have welcomed,” said Fr. Bill Clarke, SJ, former director of the Guelph farm. “His great strength was his passion for life and for God.” And for Martin, faith had to be rooted in justice.
Passionate and intense, cynical and very sensitive, funny and profound, Martin Royackers was a complex character who kept neither his tongue nor his pen in check. He never said anything to please people or institutions but always said what he thought. In Compass: A Jesuit Journal (1996), for example, he wrote:
“I am grateful for the Second Vatican Council. I don’t have to sing Latin masses or wear a dress. But I have some hesitations too. Vatican II, I am told, brought the Church into the modern world, but what’s so great about the modern world that we want to rush into it? If the Church isn’t democratic, neither is the modern world. Both have too many bureaucrats and ego-laden politicians.”
Jamaica: a second birth
In 1994, Fr. Royackers was sent—against his will at first—to St. Theresa’s Parish in Annotto Bay, Jamaica. It was there that he spent the rest of his life, becoming so deeply rooted that he wanted nothing more than to return there after each trip abroad.
The roles he took on included, among others, superior of his Jesuit community, priest in several parishes, and teacher. After morning Mass, he spent his days working outdoors, with coffee and cigarettes as his sole sustenance, before returning home for supper.
Nothing, according to him, was beneath the work of a priest: He took people to the hospital in his truck, delivered fertilizer, set up a water system for several families, and worked with his hands alongside the farmers.
He also served as director of the St. Mary’s Rural Development Project. In addition to helping individual small-scale farmers, this project aimed to create agricultural cooperatives. Indeed, land distribution in Jamaica, marked by the legacy of slavery, was concentrated in the hands of only a few. The farmers with whom Fr. Royackers worked had only small plots of land, not very suitable for agriculture. The development project supported the work of the farmers, allowed for better sales, and increased their financial independence.
But this involvement also aroused hostility. As he supported the farmers in their demands for a fairer distribution of land, property developers resented the Jesuit, but that did not stop him.
Education was also very important to Fr. Royackers. He sat on school boards and worked to make school accessible to all children. More than that, he made sure that the children were well-fed and that they could play sports. He even built a basketball court.
A spirituality close to the people
Spirituality was also at the heart of Fr. Royackers’ apostolate. On certain Sundays he could spend seven hours presiding at Masses. But above all, he adapted to his parishioners. One of them explained: “He came to understand how Jamaicans respond in terms of spiritual experience. He worked a lot on the liturgy. It is more charismatic, more fun, more alive.”
For Bishop Charles Dufour, Royackers “had to have a strong relationship with God to do what he did, to live in absolute poverty.” The Jesuit loved the poor and was always there for them. His work in Jamaica, among and with Jamaicans, earned him much love in return. Sr. Shirley Thomas noted that he did not work with Jamaicans, but rather that he had become a native Jamaican. His parishioners gave him the title of “roots man,” an honor normally reserved for native-born Jamaicans.
“Some said he didn’t quite fit into the Jesuit community. But in intelligence, the pursuit of social justice, the option for the poor, a life of poverty, he genuinely lived his vows.” Memories of Martin
Memories of Martin— Fr. Martin Royackers (National Catholic Broadcasting Council)
Erica Zlomislic, “Another Jesuit Martyr,” National Post.