A Portrait in Pastels of Honduras’ New Cardinal
Oscar Rodríguez, the 58-year-old bishop of Tegucigalpa,
is one of 10 Latin Americans among 37 newly named Cardinals. Honduras, euphoric, is already dreaming of his becoming the next Pope.
The news, previously only an unbelievable rumored possibility, reached Honduras on Sunday, January 21: at noon, the hour of the Angelus, the Pope had announced the naming of 37 new Cardinals, among them Oscar Andrés Rodríguez Madariaga, bishop of Tegucigalpa.
A dizzying rise to the topRodríguez Madariaga once characterized his own childhood as "enchanted." He was born in Tegucigalpa in 1942 to Honduran parents who offered him up to the Virgin at birth, due to health problems caused by his premature birth. Perhaps the fragility of his health had to do with his piousness and his calling to the priesthood. There is a published photograph of him as a child celebrating mass wearing a chasuble made of newspaper. He was not athletic but had an affinity for music and today will sometimes play the piano and guitar in public. He also learned to sing.
Honduras’ new cardinal was educated by the Salesians of Tegucigalpa and graduated high school in 1959. He then entered the Salesian order and studied for the priesthood in El Salvador and Guatemala, where he was ordained in 1970. While studying, he taught in various Salesian institutes, then continued his education in Europe, earning a degree in Moral Theology in Rome in 1974 and a diploma in clinical psychology and psychotherapy in Innsbruck in 1975. Despite being abroad those years, he remained in the post of director of the Salesian Theological Institute in Guatemala.
He rose quickly in his ecclesiastic career. In 1978, he was named auxiliary bishop of Tegucigalpa and in 1993, Pope John Paul II named him archbishop of Tegucigalpa. In the course of those 15 years he was appointed to fill the vacant post of apostolic administrator in two dioceses, Santa Rosa de Copán (1981-1984) and San Pedro Sula (1993-1994).
In 1979, soon after being appointed auxiliary bishop of Tegucigalpa, he was called to collaborate in the Latin American Bishops Conference (CELAM). Within this highest body of the continent’s bishops, he began as a member of the Educational Department Commission (1979), later rising to general secretary (1987-1991) and then president (1995-1999). During those 20 years he always held some position in CELAM, of which the three mentioned above are only the most important. Between 1984 and 2000, he also held positions without respite in the Pontifical Court, the Clerical Commission, the Commission on Latin America, the Papal Council on Justice and Peace and the Cor Unum Papal Council.
No Vatican declarations explaining the reasons for his appointment were published in Honduras, but Honduran ecclesiastic and lay circles offered various explanations. The first is that from his high-level posts in CELAM he has been a Latin American standard bearer on behalf of pardoning the foreign debt, an objective also advocated by the Pope and Vatican headquarters in recent years. The second is that the Vatican trusts him because he is intelligent, cultured, diplomatic, multilingual and loyal to the Pope’s positions. The third is that he is knowledgeable about the Latin American church, from his years as CELAM president. The fourth is his high level of acceptance in Honduras. And the last is that the aging Pope wants Rodríguez Madariaga included in the group of possible successors. Being a cardinal increases his probability of being elected in the next conclave.
Dreams of becoming PopeThe naming of Oscar Rodríguez produced satisfaction, joy and even euphoria in Honduras, and draws world attention to the otherwise anonymous country. Today’s euphoria is reminiscent of when Honduras’s national soccer team came close to playing in the World Cup. At that time, Hondurans briefly floated on air with the possibility that Honduras could be world champion; today they feel only a step away from having a Honduran be the world leader of the Catholic Church.
The eyes of the world are on us because God has rewarded our little country. This will even benefit Honduras economically, since it will increase tourism. Tourists will now not come only to see the Bay Islands or the ruins of Copán, but to see the birthplace of the Monsignor, the bicycle he rode as a child and the guitar he played as a young man. A museum will be dedicated to his life.
While Catholics are euphoric, Politicians and everyone else in government wants to be seen with the new cardinal, or at least be mentioned as one of his friends and sympathizers. As a source of political stability, Rodríguez was greeted at the airport by President Flores on his return from the Vatican, just as he had been by President Reina when named president of CELAM. The Liberal deputies immediately made a motion in the Congress to name him Man of the Year, even though he had already been decorated with the Great Cross and a Gold Medal in 1995. The leftwing politicians, of whom there are few, have been silent. They feel that opportunism and adulation abound, but do not dare analyze the appointment clinically.
Protestants are silent
The media are playing up his meteor-like rise to bishop, and to high positions of responsibility in the universal Church. He is given front-page coverage and the editorials are unanimously positive about him as a person. The media reprint a curriculum vitae provided by ecclesiastic sources, paradoxically highlighting his international ecclesiastic career more than the role he has played in Honduras’ national reality.
Among Catholics, the reaction is one of great happiness, especially in Tegucigalpa. After all, the Monsignor is a "Tegucigalpino." Terrified by the advances of the Protestant churches, Catholics feel that this is a confirmation of their faith. Priests tell anecdotes about meeting him and a huge crowd greeted him at the entrance to the National Sanctuary of the Virgin of Suyapa on his return after the Pope’s announcement. He had not expected this and was very moved that so many humble people came to embrace him.
The news reports did not mention the reaction of our evangelical brothers. As Hondurans, they felt proud, but as Protestants, they must constantly seek the same recognition that the government gives the Catholic Church. They feel overshadowed and thus have remained silent.
Changes are coming to the ChurchAngel Garachana, Bishop of San Pedro Sula, has cited some of the changes that will occur within the Church structure following the naming of the new cardinal. An auxiliary bishop will be named in the Archdiocese, since Cardinal Rodríguez will spend much of his time traveling. In addition, the bishops consider that seven dioceses are no longer adequate for the country; soon there will be ten. It is clear that this appointment will reinforce the power that the Monsignor already enjoyed in Honduras. Neither the position of archbishop nor the title of cardinal gives Rodríguez actual power over the other Bishops, but he is already viewed as the visible leader of the Church in Honduras, with power before the government to support or not support other bishops. This image will be accentuated now.
Obsessed with unityWhat has been Monsignor Rodríguez’s pastoral strategy within Honduras? A key point has been his insistence on unity. He has always advocated forgiving and forgetting as the way to heal old wounds. The archbishop often says that Honduras has been torn apart by fratricidal wars since its independence and that they are why the country does not make progress. In this context, he sees unity between business and workers as an obligation and thanks to his mediation last year, both sectors were able to reach agreement on a minimum wage. He advocates unity in which the church is a mediator and contrasts this proclaimed unity with the dirty tricks of the politicians. This message had special significance in the past months, when the governing Liberals obstructed the candidacy of Nationalist Ricardo Maduro.
Although the new cardinal makes frequent denouncements, his language never offends, as this would damage the unity he seeks to build. Four years ago he presided over the board that oversaw the police transfer from military to civilian power. Because of his great authority, people often see him as a magician who can resolve any conflict.
A fighter against the foreign debtAnother of Rodríguez’s obsessions, at least in his speeches, is the struggle against poverty, although always in the context of unity. He insists that the two main obstacles to overcoming poverty are the foreign debt and corruption, and that they are related. He believes that the struggle for debt forgiveness must be linked to the struggle against national corruption. Even if the entire debt is pardoned but corruption continues, he expressed repeatedly, we will find ourselves totally indebted again five years later.
One of the fruits of his appointment may be the total or partial pardon of Honduras’ foreign debt. Monsignor Rodríguez has struggled for years for this goal, not only for Honduras, but for all the world’s poorest countries. Now that he is invested with the purple of cardinal, his word will carry more weight with the international organizations. In the past, when he attended meetings in Germany or Belgium to intercede on behalf of debt forgiveness, they allowed him in and listened to him because he was a bishop. Now as a cardinal, he will be listened to even more.
Frequent but abstract critiquesThe Archbishop’s denouncements, though a constant in his weekly sermons, are abstract. They mention no concrete deeds much less name names, because this would damage unity. The abstract denouncement is accompanied by personal negotiation with influential organizations and individuals.
He uses stronger language when he speaks outside of Honduras and is usually more explicit when speaking among his priests, where he has shown himself well informed and an interesting conversationalist. In these situations, his judgments about events and people, from the universal Church to Honduran society, are very straightforward. At times, for example on sexual themes, his public denouncements within Honduras have been very concrete. He was very explicit in rejecting the Ministry of Health’s campaign to distribute condoms on the beaches during Holy week.
A touch of neo-ChristianityThe abstract denouncement is part of his pastoral strategy to maintain a good relationship with those who govern the country. It is a custom that the archbishop and the other members of the Bishops Council attend the presidential inauguration. Rodríguez was present at Flores’ inauguration in January 1998, and gave a sermon praising the President’s speech, which had been brimming with promises to be fulfilled.
A few days later, on February 3, Flores and his wife, along with top authorities of the legislative and judicial branches and the armed forces, attended the mass for the Virgin of Suyapa. Photographers documented the symbolic moment when Flores, kneeling before Archbishop Rodríguez, received Holy Communion from him. On that occasion, the Monsignor preached to the government in full and the President praised the concepts of his sermon, in a manner similar to the praise given his own speech days earlier. All of this comes close to the style of neo-Christianity.
The Catholic Church Another essential point of the cardinal’s pastoral strategy is to strengthen the Catholic Church in the face of the advancing Protestant denominations. One of the fruits of his good relationship with the government is that he has been able to maintain the Catholic Church as the national church. He also uses the media to strengthen Catholicism, for example by starting up a Catholic television channel and organizing televised events such as the Easter vigil in the stadium, in which he is at the center. He gives a lot of value to symbols, and struggled, albeit without acrimony, to erect the Christ of Picacho, which illuminates Tegucigalpa’s nights. He values higher education and founded the Catholic University, which is now setting up campuses in the departments.
is the national church
While at times his speeches are full of modern concepts, he never loses his great ability to communicate with the common people, speaking in idiomatic Honduran language and using popular examples.
Understanding by comparisonWhen compared with Central America’s two other cardinals, Oscar Rodríguez surpasses them both. As an intelligent, open, modern individual knowledgeable about the Latin American Church, he is, in this sense, the model of a 21st-century ecclesiastic figure.
The deceased Cardinal Mario Casariego, named by Paul VI, was a clownish figure who was a hindrance to the Guatemalan Church, a blunt example of how the Vatican can err in naming cardinals. Nicaragua’s Obando y Bravo, named in 1985 by John Paul II, has been politically partial, whereas the public has not viewed Oscar Rodriguez as partial, even though he wants to stay on the government’s good side.
He is only out-shined when compared with Central America’s great martyred bishops, Monsignor Oscar Romero and Monsignor Juan Gerardi. Both of them denounced concrete deeds, institutions and sometimes even the individuals responsible for injustices. Romero did so with a great oratory ability, while Gerardi, who was a more awkward speaker, left a monumental legacy of denouncement, defense of human rights and a positive recovery of historic memory, always working collectively with a team of lay men and women.
Monsignor Oscar Rodríguez is not and is not perceived as a bishop crucified by libel, threats or persecution. His continuous denouncements of the foreign debt do not bring him criticism, defamation, opposition movements or risks. The image forged by the national and international media is that of a Honduran with a meteoric rise to the top who is so irresistible that he might one day be Pope.