For the past 10 years or so, I have had the good fortune -- blessings, really -- of getting to know some courageous Latin American priests. The settings are usually the same. They have come to the United States to jostle the consciousness of North Americans about the waves of persecution and terror that are sweeping over millions of the innocent poor in their homelands.

Whether the priests I am talking with are newly ordained pastors in the slums of Lima or acclaimed leaders of resistance like Dom Helder Camara of Brazil, their words convey one changeless message: The Latin American church is in an age of martyrs. Belief is costly. Faith is high-risk. Comfortable religion is not possible.

At the moment, nowhere is violence against the Latin church -- its clergy and laypeople -- more visible than in Guatemala. Earlier this year, the Central American Jesuit Superiors reported that "in our country, there is kidnapping, torture and killing -- with the help of vehicles without license plates, night ambushes and selective terror -- on a massive scale . . . In the first 10 months of 1979 there were 3,252 assassinations by the so-call 'Death Squadron.'"

One of those hunted by the terrorists of Guatemala's military government is Father Celso Garcia. He is a stocky, middle-age man who has been a priest for 24 years, most of them in service to the Maya-Quiche Indians.

In El Quiche region, in north central Guatemala, which itself is the largest Central American country, Fr. Garcia ministers to the poor in 84 villages. He smiles softly when he thinks of the villages: "Each has a chapel. Religion is healthy because there are not many priests.The lay people carry on quite well without us. They are the living church, which is how it should be."

It was during a journey to one of those vellages last July that the priest narrowly escaped an ambush. "I was coming from Santa Cruz del Quiche, which is a large city in my diocese," Fr. Garcia says. "It was a four-hour trip by car, then two days over the trails on horseback. As I approached the village, some of my catechists ran out to warn of the military's waiting there to kill me. I turned around and have not gone back since."

The experience of Fr. Garcia was so common to other priests of El Quiche that two days after the attempt on his life a meeting of the bishop, priests and nuns of his diocese was called. Together they decided that the churches would be closed and that the clergy would leave. It has been a Church of Exile since.

In a different sense, Catholicism has long been in exile in Central America. For decades it was absent from the earthly struggles of the poor. It blessed entrenched power and ignored issues of economic justice. When the awakenings came -- for example, in 1968 when Pope Paul vi called for radical reforms in the distribution of wealth in Latin America -- the church already had in place its agents of change in people like Fr. Garcia.

What the poor had been saying all those dark years finally found its way to the top, as when the bishops in Puebla said, "The fear of Marxism keeps many from facing up to the oppressive reality of liberal capitalism."

Although several thousand citizens have been tortured, abducted or murdered since the regime of Gen. Lucas Garcia came to power in 1978, no one explosion of violence has focused world attention on Guatemala. El Salvador had the assassination of Archbishop Romero, and Nicaraqua the Sandinista revolution.

If Guatemala is different, it is because the violence tends to be aimless. "The government wages war against communism," says Fr. Garcia, "but the Indians in the villages don't know what communism is. The government seeks to suppress what isn't there to be suppressed in the first place."

With death-squad politics sanctioned by the government, the absurdity is that priests like Fr. Garcia are forced into exile, leaving the citizens at the mercy of rulers whose only security is the gun. No room is left for nonviolent reforms. Discussion is seen as weakness. Christianity is subversive.

As the country slowly goes out of control, two certainities exist: The exiled church is not a silent church, and once enough of Guatemala has been destroyed by the violent right, peace will return through the services of patriots like Fr. Garcia.