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  Number 276 | Julio 2004
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Honduras

Monsignor Virgilio: A Bishop Who Walked with the People

"And are you a delegate of the word or a catechist?" asked a priest who was giving a talk at the Tocoa parish training center to a man who appeared to be another of the dozens of peasants present. "I'm your humble servant, the bishop of Trujillo," replied Monsignor Virgilio López. López died recently, but his humility and closeness to the people remain an example to us all.

Ismael Moreno, SJ

In an event packed with humble people who had come from the surrounding hills and valleys, Monsignor Virgilio López Irías, of the Franciscan order, was buried in Trujillo Cathedral on Saturday June 26. He would have been 67 on September 29 and October 7 would have marked the 17th anniversary of his consecration as bishop in the same Cathedral where “his people” were now paying their last respects.

Most of those present at his consecration still remember the tremendous cloudburst on that day in 1987 as one of the strongest among the many downpours that fall along our northern coastline. In hindsight, it could well have been foreshadowing the problems that would rain down on that shy man, problems he would confront with the same prudent calmness he displayed when talking to his priests or anyone else who sought him out. On the day of his funeral, in contrast, the sun shone down as if confirming the hope of a new direction that Monsignor Virgilio has left to the Church: walking in the brightness of modesty and humility so the gospel can shine in response to the clamor of the poor.

“From now on we’re going to start realizing just what we’ve lost,” said one pastoral coordinator, “because we’d always find the Monsignor on his wooden bench, there in his T-shirt, with his simple wooden cross and his gentle but challenging words, whenever we looked for him, without having to ask permission or follow any protocol. Up to now we’ve had a pastor. But we’re afraid we’ll get a bishop ruled by protocol and permits, with a uniform and liturgy, with orders and commands, putting dogma ahead of the poor.”

In charge of the most conflictive diocese

Monsignor López died following a traffic accident while he was on his way to deal with his shattered health so he could go on serving his people. When they heard the tragic news, the people accompanied his body in a four-day, non-stop vigil. From the first tribute to the final homily given by Cardinal Rodríguez during the funeral mass, everyone highlighted his humility, modesty and capacity to serve. Almost nobody remembered that such a shy bishop was given the task of leading the country’s most conflictive diocese and that in times of conflict he had always found the right time and words for denunciation, turning his shyness and humility into closeness to and solidarity with the victims.

It’s no secret that the country’s largest governed by the survival of the fittest. Those responsible for applying justice
soon end up twisting the law so top-level criminals can parade as honorable members of society.

During the seventies and eighties, the Aguán region was one of the country’s main migratory destinations and land became the greatest source of power and wealth. When Monsignor López took over the diocese, lands belonging to peasant cooperatives were starting to pass into the hands of voracious businessmen like Miguel Facussé and Jaime Rosenthal. This triggered a chain of agrarian conflicts from the nineties on that has increasingly impoverished the peasants from the mountains and created waves of migration in the other direction: from the countryside to the city, the Aguán region to the maquilas of Sula Valley, and Honduras to the United States.

Supported by the priests and the people

How could such a physically weak and shy man lead such a conflictive diocese for almost 17 years, achieving such a great level of leadership within Honduras’ Catholic Church? Monsignor López had a way of dealing with problems from his closeness to the poorest sectors, creating a leadership that came not only from his position as bishop, but from the diocesan Church as a whole. He knew how to get support from both the clergy and the laity. One of his greatest contributions was his gift for discovering the particular talents of his collaborators as they helped him tackle the challenges of evangelization and the Church’s prophetic mission. Everyone who had the opportunity to work alongside him agrees that Monsignor López made people feel a sense of their own worth yet recognize that their talents shouldn’t lead to haughtiness or arrogance. It was really very difficult to be arrogant or self-important in the Monsignor’s presence. A subtle prick of silent questioning seemed to emanate from his being.

Throughout its years under Monsignor López, the Diocese of Trujillo stood out because of its social and prophetic mission. From the first diocesan plan in 1989, the pastoral of land and the struggle for cultural identity were among the apostolic priorities. The evangelizing mission always went hand in hand with denunciation and the creation of structures for the social pastoral. In December 1991, Monsignor López had to conduct the funeral mass for Chungo Guerra, a peasant leader and Word of God delegate murdered for his commitment to the peasants’ struggle for land. In 1997
he accompanied the funeral of Carlos Escaleras, killed for defending the environment. A year later, in October 1996, Monsignor López became the fiercest opponent of a proposed oil refinery for the Trujillo coast, which he was convinced would have negative ecological and human consequences. In 1995, Honduras held its first democratic referendum to resolve the issue of obligatory military service. The idea was to abolish a recruiting method that had claimed the lives of dozens of young people throughout the country, including the Trujillo diocese. Monsignor López supported the referendum strongly and was one of the first to vote in favor of turning the draft into voluntary and educational military service.

The Holy Mission in 1993: A Church with an identity

Three historical moments were particularly relevant in Monsignor Virgilio López’s life as bishop of Trujillo: the organization of the Diocesan Holy Mission in 1993; the tragedy of Hurricane Mitch at the end of 1998; and the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the first mass held on the mainland of the Americas on August 15, 2002.

From 1990 to 1992 a feeling of “mission” emerged in certain Honduran dioceses, which encouraged Monsignor López to propose to the Priests’ Council that a holy mission be carried out in his diocese.
“We need a mission that is the base and seed of the Christian communities and a reflection process in all of the parishes that invites people to live together,” he said. The Assembly approved the proposal and agreed that organizing should begin so that the holy mission could take place in 1993. On June 9, 1992, following a political and religious act commemorating the six-month anniversary of Chungo Guerra’s death, the Priests’ Council approved the first thematic and methodological package for organizing and educating on the diocesan level and in each parish. It was also decided at that meeting that the believers would actively define the process, jointly preparing the methods and issues with the priests.

The first diocesan workshop was held at the end of July 1992, in which the holy mission was defined as “poor, lay and rooted in reality,” as well as having a participatory, creative, popular and multiplying methodology. The aim of the missionary activity was “to promote an extraordinary missionary mobilization that announces the Good News of Jesus and strengthens and renews the faith of the baptized, whether active or dormant, in the religious commitment to create more human and community arenas in building the Kingdom of God.” This general objective developed a slogan that in the years to come would be identified with the Trujillo Diocese: “Awake people, God is talking and walking with you.”
The mission helped strengthen the diocesan Church’s identity, consolidate lay people’s role and confirm the direction and methodology of popular education in the different parish pastorals. Through that experience the members of the diocese discovered the internal force of the Church itself. They discovered that seeking answers from outside or waiting for “missionaries” from elsewhere to illuminate the gospel is like thinking one can find God renouncing the mystery of incarnation and just expecting Him to come down from heaven. The holy mission promoted by Monsignor López broke the mold of traditional missions. The missionaries went out of their own parish communities; study and reflection materials were based on the diocesan reality and the methodology promoted was defined with the communities’ participation and creativity.

The challenge of Hurricane Mitch

Hurricane Mitch’s rain and violent winds battered the whole of the Trujillo diocese, severely testing the structures that had been built up for more than a decade and confronting the social pastoral and evangelization with new challenges.

The devastating hurricane remained stationary for several hours just off the Trujillo coastline, then set out on its violent race across the rest of the country. At that moment, the Trujillo diocese was involved in a process of territorial and pastoral restructuring. The Olanchito parish had gone back into the pastoral care of the Archdiocese of Tegucigalpa, Bonito Oriental was separating from the Tocoa parish to set itself up as one called “Servant of God, Monsignor Oscar A. Romero,” and the Sico sector, further east along the northern coast, was in the process of separating from the Garífuna zone of Sangrelaya.
The vocational promotion was producing its first priests, who soon chose whether they would go with the Jesuits or the Franciscans or would be part of the diocesan structure.

Hurricane Mitch put the whole 11 years of diocesan organization to the test. The thousands of victims and the massive amounts of international aid offered the opportunity to implement a general social pastoral program that would make use of the organization of the base communities, the Delegates of the Word network and the different social, community, agricultural, sanitation and legal projects promoted for so many years. But Mitch also confronted the diocese and its bishop with two opposing dynamics. The first was its own dynamic of promoting individuals and communities based on their own resources, using international solidarity and support to complement the communities’ own efforts and struggles, but never replacing them. The other was the overwhelming dynamic of many international aid organizations that saw the tragedy as a chance to take the lead and impose issues, directions and methodologies on the communities based on the economic support they were offering.

The contradictions between these two dynamics generated a profound crisis within the diocese. Some pointed to the communities’ many needs and the efficacy of the work to justify caving in to the offers of aid organizations and designing unrealistic work rhythms that were disproportionate to the reality and beyond people’s capacities. Monsignor López personally experienced these conflicts. His way of living and working and his closeness to the people were decisive
in shaking off the imposition of charity handouts and messianism. After several years of this post-Mitch conflict, he managed to reorient the social pastoral, drastically reducing foreign aid and promoting processes that again prioritized the communities’ own participation and efforts.

2002: Divided between humility and power

The celebration in August 2002 of the 500th anniversary of the first mass celebrated on the American mainland once again confronted the diocese and its bishop with two different dynamics. The first was the parishes’ own dynamic, shaped by the methodology and contents of the holy mission and the problems generated by Mitch. The second was the dynamic of the Honduran Catholic Church hierarchy, which was more interested in prioritizing publicity and portentous events over and above formative processes and religious commitment. Monsignor López was left treading a tightrope between the two, which further deteriorated his already fragile health.

While he was highlighting community formation around the Church’s challenges regarding evangelization in the new century, the other sector of the hierarchy was busy highlighting the great event and trying to make sure that as many people as possible would attend so they could applaud the invited guests. This celebration became the setting for a confrontation between two models of the Catholic Church: one based on humility and simplicity inserted into grassroots evangelizing processes, and the “neo-Christian” one characterized by strength and dialogue with power and dressed up in formalities and appearances.

From the moment he entered the Franciscan order in 1964 until his death, Monsignor López never lost his humble way of living and experiencing the Church. Without ever seeking or intending it, he became a thorn in the side of the Honduran Church. While the ecclesiastical institution tended to seek proximity to the structures of power, Monsignor López walked with the people, blending in with them. And while the institutional tendency was towards all things grandiose, Bishop López celebrated life and hope in poor neighborhoods and communities deep in the mountains.

Another march for life and the forests

Monsignor López took his leave of his fellow Hondurans at a moment in which his people were forcefully expressing their discontent with President Ricardo Maduro’s government. The different fronts of protest multiplied as people were crying for the loss of their bishop.

On June 24, hundreds of environmentalists, led by the priest Andrés Tamayo, founder of the Olancho Environmentalist Movement, started another March for Life. In a week they walked the 100 km to Tegucigalpa to protest the government’s forestry policies, as well as demand an end to the cutting down of trees coveted for their precious woods (cedar, mahogany, oak), promulgation of a new forestry law (an estimated 120,000 hectares are deforested every year in the country), greater control over transnational mining companies and the repeal of the Mining Law.

Some 1,500 people converged on the capital from four different points—Danli, Siguatepeque, Choluteca and Juticalpa—to join up with the march’s organizing committee. There they handed President Maduro a document detailing a number of key problems, including the destruction of mangrove swamps and marine biodiversity, the chemical contamination of water sources and the construction of dams in forest reserves.

Teachers and unions protest

The teaching profession provided another powerful source of active protest around the same time. From the beginning of the year, primary and secondary school teachers have been using different methods to pressure the government to pay their back salaries and award them a pay rise. The minimum teachers’ salary currently stands at just $250 a month. The executive owes the teachers the equivalent of some $17 million, but can only pay a little more than $4.5 million. The profession refuses to accept this reduction and on June 7 initiated an indefinite strike. On June 24, thousands of teachers from across the country gathered in Tegucigalpa, also blocking streets in the country’s main cities as well as highways and the three land borders for several hours.

The unions opened yet another front. On June 23, members of the Honduran Unitary Workers’ Federation (FUTH) suspended a nine-day hunger strike they had been staging outside the National Congress and announced new mobilizations. The unionists are demanding a reduction of the fuel tax, state control of the fuel market, currency stability and price controls on basic products. Despite the country’s great renewable energy potential—hydroelectric, wind, geothermal—60% of the electricity driving the Honduran economy is produced with petroleum derivatives.

More prison horror

With crises growing all around him, President Maduro remained undaunted by the situation, boasting again and again that he was guaranteeing public security by keeping the youth gangs—known as “maras”—in check. Organizations such as the Committee of Relatives of the Honduran Disappeared, however, have voiced suspicion that the massacre of young people in two Honduran penal centers is part of state policy. The atmosphere of intolerance against young people from the maras fostered by the government through the media and repressive and unconstitutional penal reforms are inciting bloody incidents, while indefinitely deferring any search for profound and structural responses to the country’s social problems.

Over a year ago, 69 youngsters—61 of them from the Mara 18 gang—were murdered in El Porvenir’s Granja Jail. Despite the fact that 52 members of the army were shown to have been responsible and were accused by the Attorney General’s Office, justice has yet to be done; in fact they have all remained in their posts, thus fueling the sense of impunity and the pain of the victims’ families. Almost exactly a year later, another macabre event took place in the San Pedro Sula Penal Center. This time 104 young people died in a new expression of the serious crisis affecting the Honduran penitentiary system and the ineffectiveness of the national justice system.

The country’s prison population continues to suffer the systematic violation of its human rights due to overcrowding; the dysfunctional and ineffective penal system; the physical deterioration of the installations; bad treatment; the tolerance of drug-trafficking; violence; corruption; and serious deficiencies in the health services, food, education and recreation to which the prisoners are entitled.

Another like Monsignor López...?

Monsignor Virgilio López now rests in peace in Trujillo Cathedral, 700 kilometers from the capital city and therefore a long way from where the country’s political decisions are being made. His clergy and congregation are waiting for a new bishop as meetings aimed at calculating the most convenient choice started up as soon as the funeral was over.

People in the mountains, valley villages and urban neighborhoods of his diocese thank God that they had a real bishop, a friend who sat at their tables to share both their limitations and the small hopes offered along the way and to think with them about how to improve their lot. And they pray that God will send them another bishop who will continue helping them along the path and provide the hope of living and serving in the kind of church that Rutilio Grande, Monsignor Romero and Monsignor López dreamed of, where everyone has a post and a mission.

Ismael Moreno, sj, is envío’s correspondent in Honduras.

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