Church in Latin America faces crises from without and within

Colombian riot police block the way to the Colombian side in the Colombian-Venezuelan border in Cucuta April 2, 2019. (Credit: Ferley Ospina, Reuters via CNS.)

ROME – There’s no such thing as a dull moment when it comes to the Catholic Church in Latin America, Pope Francis’s backyard and home to an estimated 40 percent of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics.

Venezuela, a Church not on the sidelines

Tuesday was, once again, a day of revolt and protest in Venezuela, where an ongoing crisis has led a country with the world’s 10th largest oil reserve into a place where an estimated 96 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

With Juan Guaido, leader of the opposition and proclaimed president by the General Assembly leading the Operación Libertad, or Operation Freedom, hundreds of thousands took to the streets with the support of at least one military base that revolted against President Nicolas Maduro, who succeeded Hugo Chavez.

Maduro won elections last year, but the result was rejected by the opposition, the country’s General Assembly and many foreign countries and institutions, including the European Union. Guaido was sworn in as a rival temporary president in January, but Maduro never stepped down.

The bishops, who are gathered in their national assembly from April 29 to May 1, are expected to release a statement during the last day of the meeting, and at press time they hadn’t yet made any official comments on Tuesday’s revolt.

However, the Venezuelan bishops in the past have been very vocal against Maduro.

Among those who spoke is Cardinal Jorge Urosa, emeritus Archbishop of Caracas, who told the French newspaper La Croix that the bishops are “appalled.”

“The government has ruined Venezuela with the application of a totalitarian economic, political, statist, Marxist-style plan that has ruined agriculture and industry,” Urosa said.

Bishop Fernando Castro of Margarita had a reflection published by the conference on its Facebook page right before the assembly began, comparing Venezuela to Paris after the Cathedral of Notre Dame was engulfed by flames on Monday of Holy Week.

The citizens of France and of the world, the bishop wrote, committed to re-building Notre Dame after the fire “devoured it.” The fire, Castro argued, is a sign of the fire that believers and people of good will have to return to the world this “religious icon.”

“A slow fire has consumed [Venezuela] for 20 years,” he wrote. “We have but the ashes of many things: electricity, public transportation, education, production, entrepreneurship. The obstacles and the lies grow, as real barriers of fire that prevent employment, the acquisition of basic goods and for the people to move.”

However, Castro wrote, there are many Venezuelans willing to rebuild the country from the ashes and the trappings left by a “bad populist and castrating government.”

“Today we have a chance of patriotism,” he wrote. “Notre Dame is going to rebuild, Venezuela too. I am confident and hopeful. Paris and Venezuela: there is parallelism.”

Nicaragua, a bishop exiled and negotiations stalled

Bishop Silvio Jose Baez, auxiliary of Managua, Nicaragua, arrived in Rome on Tuesday after being “exiled” by Pope Francis, who requested the prelate move to the Eternal City on April 4.

Though no official explanation was given by the Vatican, Baez is known for being one of the most critical voices within the local bishops’ conference against President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo.

Speaking with Vida Nueva upon his arrival in Rome, Baez said that he’d come out of obedience to the pope, but he wasn’t sure what he’s going to be doing while he’s here nor for how long he’ll stay.

The situation in Nicaragua, he said, “is very complex,” and the only exit he sees is to call for elections.

“The current government is not legitimate, it governs only through the force of weapons and violent repression,” Baez said. “You cannot sustain a state like this.”

On Sunday, during a Mass he celebrated in Miami before heading to Rome, Baez said that Nicaraguans are a people “wounded by injustice, ambition, corruption and indiscriminate repression,” referring to the fact that more than 500 people have been killed by government forces in the past year and more than 800 remain in prison or “missing.”

He also said that the wound will eventually heal, and they will be “wounds of glory.”

Speaking about his departure from Nicaragua, Baez said that he’s leaving because “I’ve been asked to do so,” but that as he’s said before, he’s pained by this request made by Francis because the country “remains crucified.”

He also said that the Catholic Church must have its doors open to society, remaining on the side of the poor, “without being afraid of making the powerful unhappy and without folding to them.”

In the meantime, other news coming from Nicaragua is that dialogue efforts between the government and the opposition that include the papal representative, Polish Archbishop Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, once again stalled on Monday.

Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes from Managua, who was part of the original round of dialogue, said on Sunday that moving up national elections will have to be a part of the solution.

During the weekend, on the Divine Mercy Sunday, the Diocese of Metagalpa organized its traditional procession to mark this feast.

Monsignor Edgar Sacasa, pastoral vicar of the diocese, said that “we can’t celebrate the Mass without thinking of the many young people, so many heroes and martyrs of our land that have given their lives for the freedom of Nicaragua.”

He also said that the Church is united with young people who are “unfairly imprisoned, those who’ve suffered in jail, those who’ve been exiled, to the mothers of those who’ve died, with this people of love that peregrinates in Nicaragua, that loves the Church, loves Mary, loves Jesus and that believes in the mercy of the Lord.”

The Mass was celebrated by Sommertag. Speaking to him, Sacasa asked the papal nuncio to tell Francis that “we love him, that we await him in Nicaragua, and while you’re there in Rome, greet Monsignor Baez for us, as we carry him in our hearts.”

Sommertag, during the homily, said that God’s mercy puts an end to conflicts and divisions, and that “we’re all dreaming about peace and justice, but we don’t have to only dream, but actually look for that peace and justice in our hearts.”

In Chile, the Church continues to bleed

On Monday, Chilean lay woman Marcela Aranda told Ahora Noticias, a TV program, that she had been sexually abused during her youth by Father Renato Poblete, a Jesuit seen by many as the successor of St. Alberto Hurtado, who dedicated his life to the poor and was canonized in 2005.

What she told the program, she said, was the same thing that she told a Commission for Listening launched by Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, who was sent by Pope Francis to Chile last year to look into the situation of the local church after allegations of abuse and cover-up continued to arise.

Aranda claimed she was abused by Poblete during eight years, “it was a rape, violence from the beginning,” she said. She was 19 when the abuses began, and was studying theology in the local Catholic University.

She said that the priest, who died in 2010, also took her to other men, who would rape her and hit her while he watched. When she was 20, Poblete forced her to have the first of three abortions. He drugged her for the first procedure, so she didn’t even know it had happened until she was back home.

Poblete allegedly had Aranda under threat, and had told her to keep quiet because no one would believe her over him. He eventually found another girl, “it was like seeing myself when I was 19,” Aranda said, and lost interest in her, which allowed her to escape his control.

Earlier in April, the local Jesuit community announced that they were investigating several allegations against Poblete, and that they supported the government’s decision to remove a statue dedicated to the priest in a local park due to the several public allegations against him. The canonical investigation against the priest is still ongoing.

Aranda’s allegations against Poblete add yet another chapter to what seems to be a never-ending string of allegations against priests in Chile.

These have led the Chilean House of Representatives to unanimously approve a measure April 23 that would add clergy and religious men and women to the list of police, members of the armed forces, teachers and civil servants who are obliged to report all crimes under article 175 of Chile’s penal code.

The measure has raised concerns among the local bishops, as it could lead to a violation of the sacramental seal of confession. Among those who have protested is Bishop Celestino Aos, recently appointed by Francis as the temporary head of the Archdiocese of Santiago.

On Monday he said that to force priests to break the seal of the confessional would violate the conscience, and this is “the worst of the abuses.”

“Each person, if you go to confession, has the right [to expect] that what is said in confession is absolutely secret,” Aos said.

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