Fr. Carlos Riudavets, SJ was found on the kitchen floor last Friday morning, bound and stabbed. He was alone the night before at the Jesuit residence of the Colegio Valentín Salegui (Fe y Alegría 55) in Yamakai-éntsa, Peru.
The murder is a shock to both Jesuits and indigenous leaders. A Spaniard, Riudavets arrived in Peru in 1969 and spent almost four decades accompanying the Awajún and Wampis peoples, especially the 270 students who reside at the school. He had been aware of threats against his life, but his assailants found him two days before a meeting planned to address those same threats.
Riudavets’ earthly pilgrimage ended abruptly after 73 years, thirty-eight spent in service of the Amazonian tribes in the far north of the Peruvian jungle. He was buried Sunday in Chiriaco, only a few miles from the school where he was director until 2011 and where he continued working. His death came just before students return to classes on Monday from their winter break.
Some media organizations have echoed the theory that the killer could be an ex-student expelled by Riudavets when he was the school’s director, though the investigation has not yet determined the motive.
The Regional Organization of the Indigenous Peoples of the Northern Amazon of Peru (ORPIAN-P), which represents the two ethnic groups indigenous to the Marañón River watershed, immediately denounced the murder and the possibility of any impunity for the assailant, calling on “all citizens to collaborate with the investigation to find those responsible.”
ORPIAN-P also addressed all Jesuits working in the Amazon, sharing “the most profound condolences for the enormous loss” of Riudavets, whose “memory will always be alive in the Awajún [and] Wampis peoples for having been an exemplary Jesuit among our people.”
The Pan-Amazon Ecclesial Network (REPAM) also shared the news of Riudavets’ passing and the efforts underway to find those responsible. Both REPAM and the Peruvian Episcopal Conference joined in calls for government authorities to investigate the crime.
Riudavets worked at the school since 1980, when he had been sent “to help the already-old missionaries carry out this frontier work,” as Fr. Juan Cuquerella, SJ noted in the homily at Riudavets’ funeral. The Spaniard “fully dedicated himself to the make the great machinery work that is a high school where 200 hundred students live during the year, with very little resources and very few persons to carry it forward.”
Riudavets was sometimes the only priest in his outlying community. His ministry regularly involved traveling by boat to visit remote communities. Often welcoming Jesuits in formation and candidates sent to work with the indigenous communities, his absence will be felt immediately.
Daniel Chaw Namuche, a Peruvian Jesuit in formation, spent several years working with Fr. Riudavets, first as a candidate and later between his philosophy and theology studies. Riudavets was “my Father, my superior, my friend, my companion in the apostolate,” often seen leaving and arriving on the river by boat or waiting on shore, Chaw shared in a post on Facebook. In daily life, Riudavets and other Jesuits missioned to the school often set out on the river to buy food, take the sick to find medicine, and fulfill other demands of working in the region.
Jesuits were invited by the pope to take on the mission with indigenous peoples in northern Peru in 1946. The St. Francis Xavier Vicariate entrusted to the Society has its seat in Jaén, the largest regional city and a gateway between the Peruvian Andes and the upper Amazon basin. In addition to two more schools, Jesuits in the Alto Marañón area are entrusted with several parishes, run social and cultural centers, and operate a radio station.
Riudavets’ death comes in a confluence of anniversaries as the boarding school where he taught celebrates a half century of educating the local population and the Peruvian Province of the Society of Jesus celebrates 450 years since Jesuits arrived in Peru.
Further, this year marks 50 years since the meeting of Latin American bishops in Medellín, Colombia, to craft a Latin American response to the Second Vatican Council, an event well-remembered for promoting the preferential option for the poor Riudavets practiced.
As the Church looks toward greater definition of the Church’s mission with next year’s Pan-Amazonian Synod, the “faith that transforms” theme marking the 450th anniversary Jesuit celebrations seems to have found itself most clearly in the loss of a much-loved companion.
Image courtesy Peruvian Province of the Society of Jesus.