ROME — Bishop Rolando Álvarez of the Diocese of Metagalpa, is the newest, youngest and shortest bishop in Nicaragua, appointed in 2011 at the age of 44. His diocese is severely affected by the violence from April of last year that left over 500 dead nationwide, but he said that he believes today, “people have lost their fear.”
“Nicaragua is experiencing a severe social, political and economic crisis that has shocked all Nicaraguans, but the vulnerable have been most affected,” Álvarez told Crux. “Visiting a rural community, I found out about a young woman who had died of pneumonia: She was unable to afford the medicine she needed. I met a girl who was basically dying of dengue and who, in a public clinic, was given Powerade as treatment.”
Since the social uprising, the Catholic Church has become what Pope Francis describes as a “field hospital,” opening churches for the thousands wounded during clashes with the police, setting up human rights offices for people to register crimes committed by the government and the security forces, and having bishops and priests mediate the dialogue, both at a national level and also with impromptu sessions during the actual protests.
The government of President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, retaliated by claiming the bishops were staging a coup and forcing dozens of priests into exile. In addition, for over a year now, the customs office has blocked a shipment of Communion wine; the shortage has forced the bishops to ask priests to use less of it.
Self-declared as “Christian, charitable and socialist,” the Nicaraguan government has been openly anti-Church since the crisis began in April 2018, when they tried to modify the country’s social security system. The violence that unfolded was the worst the country has seen since the end of the civil war in 1990.
Despite the hostile environment for the Church, according to Álvarez, people are going to Mass and taking part in processions more than ever before.
“The people of Nicaragua have already lost their fear,” he said. “As never before our churches, our processions have been crowded with faithful and the people in general.”
What follows are excerpts of Álvarez’s conversation with Crux.
Crux: Some 18 months ago, Nicaragua was the stage for a social revolt that left hundreds dead and even more imprisoned. How would you describe the situation today?
Álvarez: Nicaragua is experiencing a severe social, political and economic crisis that has shocked all Nicaraguans, but the vulnerable have been most affected. In my work as a bishop I have found in these last weeks families that can no longer have their three daily meals. Some can’t even have two.
Visiting a rural community, I found out about a young woman who had died of pneumonia: she was unable to afford the medicine she needed. I met a girl who was basically dying of dengue and who, in a public clinic, was given Powerade as treatment.
As I walk through the streets of my city, I encounter parents who no longer have the abillity to pay their children’s tuition. Informal sales of food necessities have proliferated throughout the country as a result of rampaging unemployment. Every day there are people being fired from their jobs. And the people who remain employed are overloaded with the work of those who were fired.
There is hunger, poverty and misery.
After the initial publicity, there is very little information about what is going on in Nicaragua. Have things settled down, or is the country still suffering?
Unfortunately for some media outlets, we are not making headlines. Sometimes, they care for an individual dead person, or when there’s a mass protest, a confrontational allegation against the government. Unfortunately, however, they don’t go deeper, into the humanitarian crisis we are living.
Nicaragua’s society today is wounded by the crisis. What is the path to reconciliation?
I think memory is vital. The recognition of the truth of the drama of the story and the pain suffered by the victims. To repair the damage and guarantee that it doesn’t happen again is also essential. Only when you have truth, reparation and a will not to go back, can you let go of the pain, begin to heal and forgive.
On the solemnity of All Saints, Pope Francis said Mass in the Catacombs of Priscila in Rome, and during his homily, spoke about the many Christians who, as in the first centuries, cannot go to Mass because they are persecuted. Is the Church persecuted today in Nicaragua, or are Catholics afraid to go to Mass?
The people of Nicaragua have already lost their fear. As never before our churches, our processions have been crowded with faithful and the people in general. I think that around the Church, what I call a “social or sociological community” has spontaneously converged, with people of all walks of life coming together.
Our celebrations are attended not only by Catholics who have remained faithful, but also non-Catholics, non-believers, agnostics, skeptics, those from the political left and right. All those who have discovered that we are an open-door church. A church that is a house and school of communion and participation.
Many have discovered that we are a church that since the beginning of the crisis – I do not doubt this for a moment – has been on the only side we could be: The side of the poor, the side of those who suffer. Their pain has, in a way, strengthened us to move forward.
Anything else that readers of Crux need to know about what is happening in your country?
Even though we’re at the bottom of the priorities in the agenda of the world’s great powers; and even though many times they’ve seen us and tried to treat us as chips in their game of chess, we’re here, we exist, daily contesting between pain and hope. I would like to tell them that we are a noble, hopeful people and that every day it is clearer that we are protagonists of our history. That we believe we will achieve the Nicaragua we all yearn for. May they be close to us!
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.