[Editor’s Note: This is the 12th in a series of articles by Inés San Martín exploring the state of the Catholic Church in Pope Francis’ home continent of Latin America. The 11th can be found here.]

ROSARIO, Argentina –Cardinal Alvaro Ramazzini Imeri of Huehuetenango, Guatemala, has an undeniably tough gig. In his diocese, drug trafficking, organized crime and forced migration towards neighboring Mexico are everyday occurrences, and he’s expected to be the last line of defense in this overwhelmingly Catholic and deeply impoverished place.

Guatemala makes international news mostly for its calamities, including widespread malnutrition among children under five, structural poverty, violence due to illegal industries, and the bribery of supreme court judges.

“Taking a look at our society, we are concerned about all those who are suffering due to COVID-19 and other many sorrows,” Ramazzini told Crux Friday. “We point out very specific situations, including the fact that, for the past 28 months, we haven’t had supreme court judges. This does not help strengthen the justice system.”

Poverty, he said, is still an endemic problem in Guatemala and throughout Central America, and the main reason why drug trafficking finds such fertile ground.

Guatemalan Cardinal Alvaro Ramazzini Imeri poses outside his diocesan office in Huehuetenango Sept. 27, 2019, days before being made cardinal by Pope Francis. (Credit: CNS photo/David Agren.)

Ahead of upcoming national elections scheduled for next year, Ramazzini said there’s a need for “clarity and transparency,” with candidates being evaluated not only on their academic preparation but also the honesty with which they’ve carried themselves during their political careers.

Speaking about a statement the bishops released Feb. 11, he praised the “effort of many people who, with their honest work, above all small- and medium-sized entrepreneurs, are keeping our economy afloat so that it doesn’t collapse.”

“As bishops, we valued and highlighted just how much of themselves they give so that their children can receive a formal education and counteract the growing violence,” he said.

During the worst of the pandemic, the cardinal noted, violence decreased, but it’s once again increasing “and this worries us.” Among the different types of violence he highlighted, there’s organized crime, extortion and also “petty” robberies.

The bishops did not refer to the fact that the current president of Guatemala is among those allegedly being investigated for taking bribes. That silence, Ramazizini explained, has to do with a lack of evidence.

As for what Guatemalan young people want from the church, he spoke about family and youth ministry as well as the Synod of Bishops on Synodality, and the need to carry out a nation-wide consultation, much like was done ahead of the Ecclesial Assembly for Latin America and the Caribbean held in Mexico last November.

“We have a very large youth population, and we need to give them an answer,” said Ramazzini.

Asked about why the bishops in Guatemala speak so much about politics and the justice system, the 74-year old prelate said the church cannot “remain indifferent when we have an economic system that does not solve the problem of hunger and child-chronic malnutrition.”

“How can we, bishops, remain indifferent to this climate of violence, where life is not respected, where human values are not respected, where drug traffickers do whatever they want because those called to stop them fall prey to the dominion of money?”

“Not worrying about people starving to death is pretty much letting them die,” he said.

“How are we supposed to not care about those who die because they have no food? Or about the families that have relatives who’ve disappeared? For us, every human being was created in the image and likeness of God, and this is what moves our service and ministry.”

Not remaining indifferent to suffering, he said, also means that the bishops cannot but be appreciative of the fact that Guatemalans living abroad- mostly in the United States- represent the country’s second source of income.

“Today, the Guatemalan economy is sustained by those who migrated,” Ramazzini said. “But the banks charge a seven percent fee. Of some four billion dollars. How are we not to speak out in the face of this injustice? We need truth, solidarity, justice, and above all, peace.”

“Guatemala will continue to be a country where we will not live in peace until fundamental problems are solved,” he said.

The role of the bishop

According to Ramazzini, the role of a bishop in a diocese such as his is to “be at the side of the people who suffer, to share their problems with them, without pretending we have the answers. We have to at least be able to show our solidarity, to let them see that they have a pastor who suffers with their suffering, who gets angry and frustrated at their situation, who is indignant because of it.”

A bishop, he said, is called to put into practice the “love your neighbor,” in very concrete ways, including paying for the cancer treatment for a person who cannot afford it.

“We should not remain on the surface of pain and suffering, but get to the bottom and try to address them,” Ramazzini said. “We cannot remain indifferent to the hunger of a child.”

Not helping a woman who cannot feed her child, the cardinal said, “is a betrayal of the sense of responsibility that we have as bishops.”

A cleric- priest or bishop- is called to model his life to Jesus’, he said.

“And what did Jesus do? He not only worked miracles, but he had a merciful heart for those who suffered in their souls, like the prostitute or Mary Magdalene with her seven demons,” he said. “I cannot imagine Jesus being indifferent to the hunger of 4,000 people during his sermon in the mountain.”

In order to know the suffering of their people, Ramazzini said, a bishop has to stay in contact with reality, living with those entrusted to his care.

“If I don’t know them personally, if I don’t share with them, how am I supposed to notice the needs, dreams and illusions of the people I serve, instead of simply living in my glass tower?” Ramazzini asked.

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