ROME – Church leaders in several Latin American countries have recently raised their voices to call on government leaders to work for a more just society.
The Central American nation is reportedly preparing for presidential elections, set to take place Nov. 7. However, President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, have made sure that the elections are nothing but a farce: In the past 45 days they imprisoned 30 opposition leaders, including every presidential hopeful.
The last one to fall was Oscar Sobalvarro, an anti-Communist former guerrilla leader who had announced his candidacy early last week, with Berenice Quezada, a 27-year-old former beauty queen. She was arrested on Wednesday, he was imprisoned on Friday, with no reason given, as in every other case.
Though the government has yet to attack priests and bishops in this latest crackdown – they were threatened and even sometimes physically attacked when the ongoing crisis began in 2018 – Murillo called the clergy “wrathful, bitter and perverse” on Aug. 3.
Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes of Managua, the country’s capital, responded with his head held up high, quoting Pope Francis: “Ideologies pass, governments pass, but the Church remains.”
“We will respond to the population with words, accompany our people from the Gospel, not from ideologies,” the cardinal said.
“I believe that today, more than ever [we must accompany the people] in all its sufferings, in every political, social, economic situation, as well as in the pandemic,” Brenes said. “I believe in the great mission of the Church, of us as priests, is to accompany this people in every situation, so we cannot frame ourselves in a specific moment of history.”
Ortega too, went after the bishops in recent days, saying that Christ “called them Pharisees when he found them in the temple and whipped them out. The pharisees have not disappeared, they go around, dressed to the nines, speaking as if they were saints, and what is found is the filth, where there’s no respect to Christ, no respect to God.”
Several sociologists have warned that by comparing the bishops with the Pharisees and mentioning that Christ violently kicked them out from the temple, Ortega is creating a preemptive justification for the violence that might befall the bishops if they are perceived as a threat for his reelection.
Since the sociopolitical crisis began in April 2018, Catholic churches have served as field hospitals and store holds for international aid, and priests and religious have often placed themselves in between protesters and security forces in an attempt to save lives.
Archbishop Rolando Alvarez, one of the most popular prelates in Nicaragua, also made reference to the attacks against the church in recent days, comparing Ortega with the devil.
“The devil who is intelligent and uses of course his intelligence for evil, knows that if they hurt the heart of the pastor they weaken him and weakened the pastor weakens the people, the pastor will be hurt and the sheep will be scattered, they are demonic attacks that seek, listen well, to hurt the pastor, but they are especially aimed at hurting the heart of the pastor because if they hurt the heart of the pastor, the pastor is weakened and if the pastor is weakened, the people are weakened,” said the bishop.
This Saturday, when Argentina usually mobilizes for the feast of St. Cajetan, the bishops spoke about the socioeconomic crisis facing the country.
Quoting Pope Francis’s encyclical Fratelli Tutti, the president of the local bishops’ conference spoke about creating better politics, noting that “helping the poor with money must always be a temporary situation; we have to accompany them by helping them to create that dignity that work gives.”
“There are informal jobs, jobs that are carried out by the immense number of brothers and sisters of the popular economy: Recycling, cardboard collectors, street vendors, small manufactures, certain handicraft works, so many things, so many searches for work to be able to make a living in any way because we are in an almost desperate situation in some points,” said Bishop Oscar Ojea, before supporting the possibility of a universal salary that grants recognition to the dignity of these often informal jobs.
“God creates the world for us and asks us to take care of it and to make it move forward; that is why work is the noblest vocation of man and his supreme dignity, but today this dignity is wounded,” he said. “It is a wounded dignity because we have enormous problems of unemployment, of job losses, of anguish; we know what it means, we priests and those who have worked in Caritas [a Catholic charitable organization], when brothers and sisters come to look for work.”
A 15th and 16th century Italian priest and founder of the Theatine religious order, St. Cajetan is known as Argentina’s patron saint, and revered locally as the patron of work and bread. Pope Francis was especially attached to the devotion when he served as Archbishop of Buenos Aires from 1998 to 2013.
An estimated 45 percent of Argentina’s population lives in poverty, including two-thirds of the children, and 11 percent of the population is unemployed.
After a contentious election, Pedro Castillo was sworn in as president in late July. Though the Catholic bishops remained on the sidelines during the election, they have since become more outspoken.
Castillo, a Marxist, won the election by some 40,000 votes, showing that the country is still extremely divided. In addition, his party did not win in Congress.
Archbishop Miguel Cabrejos, president of the Peruvian bishops’ conference, asked about this fragmentation in the country, saying that “he who loves his political dream more than the country itself will end up destroying it, he loves his personal option more than the common good.”
“Therefore, the Church reaffirms the commitment to seek unity through sincere dialogue, creating bridges of communion and solidarity to overcome differences and overcome polarization,” he said. “Peru is divided, it is divided, but we have nothing to gain by defending my personal dream instead of the common dream. We need to create sincere bridges of fraternity and solidarity. We must build, not destroy.”
The Church, he said, believes in the common good, and in the progress of all, condemning the progress of a few to the exclusion of others.
“It is a great challenge to overcome polarization in this country,” he said.
During the next five years – the Peruvian president rules for five years and cannot be re-elected at the end of the term – the bishops will have to tread carefully: Despite the country being overwhelmingly Catholic, seven former guerrilla members are now pro-Castillo members of Congress.
Although it’s not uncommon for Latin America’s guerrillas to enter politics once leaving violence aside, the Shining Path, a Peruvian revolutionary communist party and guerrilla group, targeted clergy during its most violent period, killing several priests and at least one religious sister.