ROSARIO, Argentina – Christmas is a season of celebration. Yet in Latin America, many Christmas messages from the bishops have turned into a cry for freedom and political stability, and a call to help the poor.
According to the auxiliary bishop of Santo Domingo, Jesús Castro Marte, the Catholic Church is “very concerned” for the country’s immediate future, due to the challenges the Dominican Republic will face in the new year.
In his Christmas message released on Sunday, the prelate urged the Caribbean nation to tackle social violence, especially against women, political clientelism and the ambition for easy – and illicitly procured – money.
“We are concerned about our immediate future, for the year 2020 comes with many challenges,” he said.
The bishop noted that the year that is coming to an end brought “difficulties” and also “hopes,” but that the Dominican people haven’t lost their faith to continue working towards a better nation.
“Far from offering a pessimistic view on the reality of our country, our people remain standing and facing the new challenges,” Castro Marte said.
He also said that the people have “hope” in the upcoming congressional elections set for February and the presidential vote scheduled for May, expecting for both to take place in a “clean and orderly way, without violence and respecting the rights of voters.”
With sex-based hate crimes against women on the rise throughout the region, the prelate urged that these crimes be addressed with “efficiency,” including the development of protection and support programs for the women victims of abuse and their families.
“We also want to be victorious in the fight against violence and insecurity and in the fight against the serious problem of drug trafficking and drug distribution,” the bishop said.
During his Sunday Mass, Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, who is a member of the council of cardinals that advises Pope Francis, made a heartfelt appeal for Christmas: “To those who want to kill, we ask at least for a Christmas truce.”
“Please on this Christmas, Christ wants to be born in a Honduras that wants peace,” Maradiaga said.
In a Christmas message released Dec. 19, the bishops’ conference of the Central American country demanded peace in a nation that has been shaken by episodes of violence and corruption.
They wrote that Honduras is going through “difficult times because of the political and economic situation, due to insecurity, and because of the lack of employment.”
These challenges, they said, make it not surprising that “a large part of the population affirms that they have lost their faith and hope.”
They also say that Christmas should serve as a time to “become aware of what the Lord asks us to do to transform society into a place of respect for human rights and to live in justice, truth, peace and solidarity.”
Their message can be described as a call to live Christmas as a sign of hope capable of changing the history of Honduras.
“May Christmas help us to convert our hearts and free ourselves from the consumerism that neoliberalism has wanted to subject us to,” they wrote, adding that Mary and Joseph who guard the Christ child in the manger are in this sense “a model for all Honduran families.” They embody “that hope [families] need to face economic pressure, abusive costs of public services, emigration and other difficulties.”
According to Cardinal Jorge Urosa Sabino, the archbishop emeritus of Caracas, “Christmas is an opportunity to strengthen hope,” given the “critical situation that worsens every day in Venezuela.”
His words came in a written message that he shared with several news outlets, including Crux.
Known for his critical stance against President Nicolas Maduro, Urosa said that the way the government has managed the country is “unbelievable,” as Venezuela has become “an oil country [that] suffers from a shortage of petrol and domestic gas: It is something embarrassing and unheard of!”
In an attempt to curb the crisis, on Nov. 2 Maduro had tried to make Christmas come earlier this year, with first lady Cilia Flores announcing in a nationally televised speech that the celebrations were “doubled” this year, with “two months of joy.”
With most of the population not being able to buy food, much less gifts, and a Catholic Church that is somewhat constricted in its movements due to the government accusing the bishops of being part of the opposition and keeping prelates and other religious leaders under surveillance, the announcement had no real impact.
The only thing that is happening “earlier” is the Christmas Midnight Mass, which due to security concerns and electricity shortages will happen throughout the country before 5 PM local time on Christmas Eve.
“Those who suffer the most are the poorest!” Urosa wrote, adding that despite the challenges, people are still called to rekindle hope in view of Christ’s birth: “Even in the midst of so many difficulties we must strengthen our religious practice, go to church, participate in Sunday Mass and receive the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist, trusting in God.”
The Catholic Church in this Central American country has joined the plight of the families of 157 political prisoners being held by the government of President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo.
In mid-November, a group of seven mothers began a hunger strike at the Church of St. Michael Archangel in Masaya, near Managua, to demand freedom for their children. The government responded with a police lockdown, banning people from coming in or out of the church, while pro-government militants continuously threaten to enter the house of prayer.
Father Edwin Roman, who leads this parish, warned on Sunday during his homily that there is a “fake Christmas,” that will be celebrated by “those who persecute the Church.”
“How can they say that they love Christ when they are persecuting his mystical body?” he said.
Polish Archbishop Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, papal representative in the country, recently said that the Vatican has been working “from day one” for the release of the prisoners, something Pope Francis had hoped would be done before Christmas, but that the dialogue with the government used to be “more concrete,” than it is now, after “everything that has happened.”
“Remember that the Vatican has no power, it can only ask,” he said, after refusing to give further comments so as not to put the negotiations at further risk.
In his Christmas message, sent to Crux, Bishop Rolando Alvarez of Metagalpa said that during this holiday season, the “pain of the families that won’t be able to be together” will be commemorated.
He also called on the Nicaraguan people “not to let anything, nor anyone, rob us of our joy and hope,” even amidst suffering, sieges and repression.
The season will be marked “with the pain of thousands of families that will not be able to be together, because one of its members is either a fugitive, hidden or is an asylum seeker, exiled, fearful, [or one of the] many families that have a dead relative, someone who has been disappeared,” Álvarez said.
He doubled down after a Mass he led on Sunday in the local cathedral, when he prayed to the Christ child for the grace that will allow the Nicaraguan people to “build a peaceful country, with justice, developing with respect, freedom and where, in the right moment, we can all, through free, fair and transparent elections, vote so that things can be resolved civilly.”
After celebrating Sunday Mass in a local prison, where he baptized 21 people, gave first communion to 15 and confirmed 26, Bishop Oscar Ojea, president of Argentina’s bishops’ conference, released his Christmas message, in which he said “we live in a world with a lot of lies, selfishness, indifference and corruption.”
“However, all the evil in the world pales in comparison to the Nativity scene,” he said.
“The Lord is patient with us,” Ojea said. “He loves us with infinite mercy. The pedagogy of the Nativity scene invites us to contemplate the marvelous tenderness of God who embraces us.”
Christmas is a mixture of local and foreign traditions in Argentina. Firing up the grill is a staple holiday, which takes place during the southern hemisphere’s summer. However, families also enjoy Panettone from Italy and nougat from Spain at celebrations that usually take place at large family tables that often seat 20 or 30 people.
The main meal is after the usual 9 pm Christmas Eve Mass.
This tradition was hailed by Ojea, who praised the fact Argentines have “kept our tradition of family encounter, the need to be with loved ones on Christmas Eve.”
“When we are disappointed in everything around us,” the bishop said, “the Lord is not disappointed in us. When we want to put an end to everything, because we are tired, we feel overcome, the faith of the Jesus child appears again in each one of us. He gives us our dignity back. It’s as if he’s telling us ‘let’s start again.’”
He closed his message with a prayer for a more “just, human and Christian world.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma
Crux is dedicated to smart, wired and independent reporting on the Vatican and worldwide Catholic Church. That kind of reporting doesn’t come cheap, and we need your support. You can help Crux by giving a small amount monthly, or with a onetime gift. Please remember, Crux is a for-profit organization, so contributions are not tax-deductible.