Nicaragua: A Church on the side of its people
by Ines San Martin
“We are carrying a small corner of the cross of Christ. We cannot carry it all. It is He who is helping us.”
Nicaragua today is a country trapped between two identities: on the one side it is a nation led by a government that in many respects continues a long history of dictatorship, as typified by the Somoza dynasty, which governed the country for almost 6 decades during the 20th century.
But on the other hand it is also a country whose people have said “enough”. A people who have woken up from their stupor and now wish to move forward, with a Catholic Church led by ten bishops who do not fear to shepherd their flock and be a Church that goes out to the margins, as Pope Francis keeps asking, and which opens the doors of its cathedrals in order to be, quite literally, a field hospital.
A Church without political banners and which makes no distinctions in caring for the wounded, supporting those who suffer and feeding their hunger, both physical and spiritual.
“They stepped up at a difficult moment… When the people were suffering greatly, because they were afraid to go out into the streets”, says one priest from the diocese of Matagalpa – who for reasons of security prefers to remain anonymous. He is speaking to a delegation from the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International), which visited the country at the end of November 2018 to express its support and solidarity with the situation in which the country finds itself.
Despite the posters in the city, which boast of a Matagalpa that is “Christian, socialist, in solidarity”, the tension is palpable, with police and paramilitaries on the streets to dissuade the civil population from making any protests, although these, for the most part, have been peaceful. The protests began in April 2018, but in the case of Matagalpa, the government forces have even prohibited a group of women from honouring the memory of their children, who were murdered in the civil war, in a march that they have made regularly for almost 20 years.
Dome of the Cathedral in Granada - Nicaragua. Copyright Aid to the Church in Need.
“I am one of the lucky ones. Many priests have been forced to flee”, our friend tells us. “But we cannot remain unmoved when people burst in during Mass because they are killing them. Because the army and police aren’t throwing sweets at them. They are shooting to kill, aiming at people’s heads, their backs and their chests.”
“The Gospel teaches us that we must open our doors to those who are persecuted, and this is what we did. Our churches were turned into refuges, not into opposition planning centres, as the government claims to believe.”
And this is a priest who knows what he’s talking about. On May 15, 2018, in a car belonging to the diocese and known as “the ambulance”, he rescued 19 wounded demonstrators who had been hit by bullets from army AK-47s. By order of the government, the public hospitals were forbidden to help the wounded, the majority of whom were university students.
“During those days, the people on our church benches were not listening to the Gospel, they were living it”, he told us with emotion.
From September onwards, and with help from various international organisations, the diocesan church opened five pastoral “human rights” offices from which it provided support to families who had lost children during the demonstrations, and likewise to those who continue to be persecuted today for having protested. Around 50 of them are still imprisoned without trial, and hundreds have “disappeared”, while an estimated 30,000 or so have gone into exile in Costa Rica, and many more into other countries.
“They accuse us of hiding weapons, but we have never done so”, the priest tells us. “Our only weapon has been Jesus in the Eucharist.”
The number of people who today depend on the Church for their survival has trebled since the month of April.
“We are carrying a small corner of the cross of Christ”, he tells us. “We cannot carry it all. It is He who is helping us.”
The situation of the bishops and of many religious in Nicaragua is far from easy. Their action in opening the doors of the churches to care for the wounded, both students and police, and likewise their willingness to be involved in a failed process of national dialogue, has resulted in many of them being branded by official sources as “coup plotters” and “terrorists”.
One of these is Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, the Archbishop of Managua, the capital of the country. Despite the difficulties, he has lost neither his smile nor his faith.
Cardinal Leopoldo José Brenes Solórzano, diocese of Managua in Nicaragua photo credit Jacques Berset. Copyright Aid to the Church in Need.
But despite his smile, Brenes cannot hide his concern for the future of Nicaragua, a country that has lived through enough revolutions to know that many of the grandiloquent ideas that convince the masses, sooner or later end up being destroyed by the abuses of power of the few.
The last revolution began on 18 April, although many people in Nicaragua agree that in reality it was no more than the “matchstick that ignited the bonfire that had been building up a long time previously.”
“The Church is accompanying the process of dialogue that was initiated after the protests, but as a service to the country”, Brenes insists. “We are not interested in power, but in supporting the efforts for peace, without looking for any personal benefit other than the good of the country. When the clashes took place between the government forces and the demonstrators, we defended all sides.”
More than once, the Cardinal was forced to mediate between the government and the protesters, both in order to rescue police officers who had been captured in the crush, and to prevent the soldiers from shooting on the students.
“We never asked anyone what side they were on, we simply helped all those who asked our aid”, he told us, though he did acknowledge that they could have denounced the use of violence on the part of some of the demonstrators.
“Both sides were violent at times, but the government made disproportionate use of violence”, he said. “The riot police had rifles, whereas the young demonstrators had catapults and home-made petrol bombs.”
The challenge now is to work for national reconciliation; something he knows will take generations and cannot be achieved overnight. “But we have to lay the groundwork for this reconciliation.”
Despite the challenges, Brenes chooses to cling to his faith rather than lose hope, more than ever convinced of the prophetic words of Pope Pius XII, who said, “Give me an army of people who pray the Rosary every day, and we will change the world.”
“I pray the Rosary every day: the first mystery for Nicaragua, the second for the conversion of those in government, the third for the mothers who have lost their children, or have them in prison, the fourth for the political prisoners, and the fifth for the clergy.
We believe that faith can move mountains, and the prayer of the Rosary can convert hearts and move them to a true reconciliation that will care for the wounded hearts and seek the good of everyone”, the Cardinal concluded. “And you, will you pray for Nicaragua?”