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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 254 | Septiembre 2002



Reflections on the Canonization of Central America’s First Saint

John Paul II came to Guatemala, let us witness his suffering, gave us a saint—Brother Pedro—and went away again. What kind of country did the Pope find? Who received him when he was here? What will come of his visit?

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

Pope John Paul II’s third visit to Guatemala was the antithesis of his first, in 1983, at least on one very polemical issue.

The death penalty, once again

That first visit was framed by the decision of General Efraín Ríos Montt, then head of state thanks to a coup d’état, to reject the Pope’s petition to pardon six people condemned to death by the faceless judges of the special tribunals. The six men were executed while the Pope was still in Costa Rica, and he very nearly canceled his trip to Guatemala. This time, a few days before his arrival, the Pope asked President Alfonso Portillo to decree a moratorium on executions that would immediately affect over twenty death row inmates. Portillo responded by promising to sign no execution decrees during what remains of his term and to submit a bill to Congress on the day of the Pope’s arrival to abolish the death penalty, a promise he kept. Thus, nearly 20 years after the Pope’s first visit, the issue of the death penalty again became a symbol. Ríos Montt, again in power, this time as the president of Congress, did not attend the mass to canonize Brother Pedro.

More than a few voices in the opposition press, Portillo’s habitual critics, described the President’s promises to the Pope as demagogic. As Oscar Clemente Marroquín, an editorial writer for the newspaper La Hora, pointed out, however, the President’s stand can hardly be considered demagogic in a country where the vast majority of the population, including Catholics, favor capital punishment and political parties rally behind it as a response to crime and a bulwark of public safety.

A team effort?

Another interpretation requiring more cunning than intelligence is that Portillo and Ríos Montt are in cahoots on the issue: Portillo can respond generously and ethically to the Pope’s call, even going beyond what was asked, while Ríos Montt ensures that nothing comes of it in Congress. The Pope goes away more than placated and the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) preserves its chances of winning at the polls.

A month after the Pope’s visit, this theory has gained ground. After Ríos Montt responded with ambiguous statements to the President’s bill to abolish the death penalty, Congress’s Legislation and Constitutional Points Commission issued an unfavorable opinion on it. The bill along with the attached opinion will now be presented to the full Congress, where there is no doubt that it will be rejected. What Portillo will do, since he can hardly take his habitual lying to such an extreme, is refrain from signing any decrees of execution during what remains of his term.

Massive support for
capital punishment

There was little public discussion of the issue during the Pope’s stay in Guatemala. When he left, however, the debate burst out in the columns of the newspapers’ editorial pages, which expressed total respect for the Pope but total dissent from his petition.

It is not that Guatemalans fail to recognize that in this country, as in other parts of the world, the death penalty does nothing to dissuade criminals. The statistics prove it: criminals are not deterred from committing crimes punished by the death penalty. They are not deterred even in the People’s Republic of China, where the state applies the death penalty to greater numbers of people than anywhere else and makes a greater show of it. Nor are criminals deterred by the death penalty in the United States, which executes even mentally disabled people.

Once this fact is recognized, however, it is immediately forgotten. Editorialists go on to insist that while abolition of the death penalty may be fine in a tranquil, civilized country like Sweden, it is not an option in crime-battered Guatemala, where people cannot be expected to diminish their security even further by abolishing this maximum punishment. Some, like the business umbrella organization CACIF, simply affirm that the law is the law and must be followed as long as it stands.

Most do not even consider other significant facts that have also been demonstrated in Guatemala. More than a few innocent people have been executed, and the procedures that cleared their names could not bring them back to life. In addition, death sentences most often fall on the unemployed or marginalized members of society, or on former police officers, soldiers or members of paramilitary groups who society itself, through its state institutions, taught to kill.

The Pope’s message
rings of celestial music

Until proposals are made to radically reform the penitentiary system, which includes a larger budget, training and fair salaries for prison workers and rehabilitation programs, we cannot help but feel that the journalists are following an emotional current of blind indignation in a society overflowing with a culture of violence. The mother of Beverly Sandoval, a teenager kidnapped and murdered five years ago, described the proposal to abolish the death penalty as "another mockery of justice. Portillo is concerned about the rights of people sentenced to death, but not about our relatives, who had no rights when they were kidnapped and murdered."
In short, it is one thing for the Pope to come and for people to applaud him and thus nurture the country’s religious identity. But his message on abolition of the death penalty is something else entirely; to many people it sounds like celestial music in an all too earthly country.

A celebration with 750,000 guests

The first thing one noticed at the stadium near the airport where the mass to canonize Brother Pedro took place was the enormous crowd of people from all ethnic groups, social classes, colors and ages. They came from the four ends of the capital and the four cardinal points of the country in large pilgrimages that lasted all night. They were all mixed together, except for some 500 special guests, mainly from the highest social classes, who enjoyed special seats.

Most in this sea of people probably came from the capital, but there were also many organized groups of indigenous people from the municipalities and parishes of the highlands. Several months earlier, a million people had turned out to hear Guatemala’s most popular singer, Ricardo Arjona, in this same stadium. But some who had attended that concert said the crowd that came out for the Pope was even larger. The media gave a figure of 750,000.

The Jesuit anthropologist Ricardo Falla, who was among the crowd, described the scene as "an entire people finding itself and celebrating its identity." He saw a people different from the one in the minds of those who had designed and carried out massacres in the eighties and continue to thrive on threats and impunity, taking advantage of organized crime and corruption. He saw a "healthy, vibrant and courteous people, with a large indigenous component but also many blond heads, and above all, a people happy to be coming together, joyously, without fear, without violence, responding affectionately to those who came from Tenerife—the land of Brother Pedro—and from other countries." In the weeks before the Pope’s arrival, many of these people had dedicated themselves to designing and creating the traditional carpets of colored sawdust, which the Pope had recalled nostalgically in remarks about his upcoming visit.

Brother Pedro: A saint of the poor

This mass also had a Central American touch. The region’s leading political figures were there, including all the Presidents of Central America, the President of Panama and the Prime Minister of Belize. Some have established Catholic roots, like Salvadoran Education Minister Evelyn Jacir, but others, like Managua’s Mayor Herty Lewites, have not been associated with the Church. Groups of pilgrims responded by raising their flags when the representatives from these countries were introduced from the podium.
The celebration was held to honor the memory of Central America’s first canonized saint, Brother Pedro de San José de Betancur. Of course Central America already has its "saint" in the martyred Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero, who although not officially canonized is venerated by the poor of El Salvador as well as the rest of Central and Latin America.

Brother Pedro is also a poor saint, a saint of and for the poor. Over the course of this past year, the Guatemalan bishops have worked hard to help people see him as the Good Samaritan of Jesus’ parable. The Pastoral Letter published on June 2 was titled, "Go and do as he does." The title referred to Jesus’ reply to the learned man who asked, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus identified the man lying half dead on the road as the neighbor and the Samaritan to be emulated as the one who stopped to help him.

The bishops’ purpose was to bring Brother Pedro’s example up to date. As a young man, Brother Pedro, a Spaniard of modest means who lived in the 17th century, heard talk of the great missionaries in America and at the age of 24 came to the new continent with dreams of adventure. Discarding Cuba and Honduras, he made his home in Antigua, then the seat of the province of Central America, where he spent his short life working in solidarity with the poor of many races, dying exhausted some 17 years later.

"Go and do as he does"

The bishops’ call, which was aimed at "strengthening our commitment to the common good," rang out loud and clear on many of the country’s radio stations in the months leading up to Brother Pedro’s canonization. The bishops repeated again and again their message that "it is more human to strive for unity, strengthen civil society, fight corruption and impunity, create just laws and act in accord with them, work for the common good and build peace than to close ourselves off, indifferent to the lives of the poor, of those swelling the ranks of the excluded who do not count for anything."
This effort to use the Pope’s visit to promote solidarity with the poor stood out over any attempt to elevate the Catholic Church above all others, even if the archbishop of Guatemala, Rodolfo Quezada Toruño, did receive the Pope "in the faith, this single, blessed, Catholic, apostolic, Roman faith, inherited from our forebears as a gift from Our Lord God."
The massive participation of Catholics in the event inevitably reflected a streak of Catholic affirmation at a time when increasing numbers of Guatemalans identify themselves with Protestant and especially Evangelical churches. But in their Pastoral Letter on Brother Pedro, the bishops emphasized that his example as "a Christian who took the demands of the gospel very seriously has in itself an undeniable ecumenical value. For this reason we propose his open and simple testimony, in the midst of this extremely complex situation we are facing, as a meeting place among the diverse Christian faiths in Guatemala.... The image of Christ as brother of all, friend of the poor and the Good Samaritan to all who are left by the edge of the road of this history we as Christian communities share radiates in him."
The bishops’ letter also used one of the most common sentences in the Evangelical experience: "Who can presume to have found Christ? Only compassionate love, in the person of the poorest, makes this encounter possible."

In Spanish and Kaqchiqel

At the mass to canonize Brother Pedro, the archbishop of Guatemala received the Pope in Spanish and Kaqchiqel. Two deacons then sang the gospel of the final judgment in both languages. The song rang out strong and clear over the immense silent crowd. The archbishop welcomed the Pope by recalling one of the most impressive examples of the fulfillment of the gospel in Guatemala: "We receive you in the faith sealed by the blood of our witnesses of the faith, our martyrs, with our unforgettable auxiliary bishop Monsignor Juan José Gerardi Conedera first among them." The crowd applauded loudly at the mention of Bishop Gerardi’s name.

The Pope, on the other hand, did not mention Gerardi, either in the mass or at any other point during his visit. People noted this, especially because in 1983, in San Salvador, he spoke of the martyred Monsignor Romero with praise and affection and went to the Cathedral to bow down before his tomb. Bowing before Gerardi’s tomb would have been impossible because of the Pope’s health. As for mentioning him, had someone suggested it might be counterproductive, that he should leave it to the archbishop to simply utter the name in his presence?
These twists and turns are hard to explore in a person who plays two roles: head of the Catholic Church and head of state of the Vatican. John Paul II has been capable of inventing a new, personal manner of finding common ground with other religious leaders in the inter-faith meetings at Assisi. It would seem, however, that he is less inclined to do so in predominantly Catholic environments.

Respect and admiration for
indigenous people

The Pope drew on the gospel of the final judgment in a simple, short homily that lasted quite some time, as he had to struggle to pronounce each sentence. He even had to stop at one point, and it seemed he would be unable to continue. This happened immediately after addressing himself to the indigenous people, expressing "esteem and closeness."
After a storm of applause filled the void, the Pope went on, assuring the indigenous people that he has not forgotten them and that "admiring the values of your culture, I encourage you to overcome with hope the sometimes difficult situations you are going through." He concluded with this message: "Build the future responsibly, work for the harmonious progress of your peoples! You deserve full respect and have the right to fully realize yourselves in justice, holistic development and peace."
Preceded by a bitter dispute over ethnic and racial discrimination, and followed by an incident in which an indigenous woman wearing traditional dress was turned away from a bar in one of the capital’s elegant neighborhoods, the Pope’s words remained in the air, both troubling and stirring people’s hearts.

What is most important here is that the Pope spoke to the indigenous population as the makers of their own history and heirs of a great culture; in other words, as a people who need no tutors. He recognized the difficulty of their lives in a country that has not yet admitted that it is a "multiethnic, multicultural and multilingual" state, as established in the Constitution, and he demanded the respect and the rights due them.

Brother Pedro’s
compassionate vision

Two prominent Guatemalan historians and anthropologists, Celso Lara and Haroldo Rodas, wrote of Brother Pedro in La Hora as a person whose "arrival in Guatemala, a geographic space with many different ethnic groups, made him focus on the region’s considerable socioeconomic problems." They thus find contemporary relevance in his having founded a hospital for the poor, whether Spanish, indigenous, black, mestizo or mulatto, when the only existing hospital in Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala was for wealthy Spaniards.

The school Brother Pedro founded to fight illiteracy and lack of education among the poor was equally important. As pastor in his native Canary Islands, his own lack of education had proved to be an insuperable limit in the studies required to be a priest, which meant that he lived out his religious vocation as a layperson.

A call for contemporary compassion

The Pope interpreted the life of the "new saint, true brother of all those who live in misfortune" as "a pressing call to practice compassion in today’s society, especially when so many are in need of a helping hand... We are thinking of the children and young people without a home or education; the abandoned women with so many needs to meet; the numerous marginalized people in the cities; the victims of organized crime, prostitution or drugs; sick people with no care or old people living alone." The Pope said that Brother Pedro’s legacy "must arouse in Christians and all citizens the desire to transform the human community into a big family where the social, political and economic relations are worthy of us, and human dignity is promoted with effective recognition of our inalienable rights."
The Pope’s fundamental message to the people of Guatemala centered on his esteem for the indigenous peoples. If there was another message to emphasize, it was the call for "gut wrenching" compassion towards the misery of the multitudes. Latin American theologian Jon Sobrino considers the "principle of compassion" the basis of liberation theology, while European theologian Johann Baptist Metz has written that "compassion is the key word of Christianity’s universal paradigm in the age of globalization."

Blessed and in search of a blessing

Ricardo Falla also commented on the end of the mass: "As they left the canonization ceremony, people gave an impression of tranquility. There was no aggression, no one was on edge, they were happy despite the fact that there wasn’t the same kind of room at the exit as there was in the stadium itself, where the people could sit down and even lie down. People were jammed together when they left, but in peace. They were contrite but repentant and deeply moved, as though saying ‘look at what we are, we have to sympathize with each other.’ People were moved and empathetic because the message was one of compassion, not struggle, not the defense of human rights or a mere affirmation of Catholicism."
I walked through a good part of the stadium giving communion and had another view, surely not contrary but rather complementary. It was another facet of the full picture. It seemed as though people were out for a big day in the countryside, with their food, their drinks, happy. Many people took communion, but afterwards, many more stopped me to ask me to bless their rosary, their water, their Brother Pedro cap, their children or themselves. I was overwhelmed by the impression of being a representative of the traditional popular religiosity, not the religious spirit whose message is of consequential ethical practice, but of this other religiosity, one nourished by the sacred as though it were a lightning bolt to deflect misfortune, and does not see people as sacred because of their inherent value and dignity but believes that they become sacred only when they are blessed.

When I left the ceremony and walked down Liberation Boulevard, I counted 20 beggars over the course of some 400 meters. The vast majority of people weren’t carrying much and no one put coins into the beggars’ outstretched hands. How many people saw the day of their meeting with the Pope and the new saint as the beginning of a change from the religion of rituals and blessings to the religion of a compassionate heart and ethical practice? How many heard that call from the Guatemalan bishops: "Go and do as he does?"

Why does this elderly, ailing man draw such crowds?

Another question that arises is why the Pope, this John Paul II, draws such enormous crowds. It may be that seeing him now so sick, so weak, an ailing old man whose life is slipping away, offers a key to the answer. His undeniable courage elicits admiration while his ravaged frame arouses compassion. As Ricardo Falla suggested, "young people especially feel an affection for the sick and pained but wise old grandfather who elicits trust." He is no longer the strong man who came to Central America for the first time 19 years ago, kissed the earth without anyone’s help, read his homilies standing firmly and with a stentorian voice demanded silence from Nicaragua’s suffering and rebellious Sandinista masses. He is no longer the man he was in 1983, able to challenge Ríos Montt in Guatemala, just as Ríos Montt challenged him, and to shout with a powerful voice, "No more separation between faith and life! If we accept Christ, we carry out Christ’s work."
Perhaps this is why today people believe he is right when they hear that the Pope has said he "could resign peacefully if Jesus had come down from the cross." From another perspective, however, it is hard to understand how a global and still so centralized church as the Catholic Church is governed today by a man with a clear mind and an enormous amount of energy in his heart but whose strength has left him and must place ever more government functions in the hands of Vatican officials who find it hard to accept that they must fulfill the task of Peter’s successor to "confirm their brothers and sisters in the faith."
During the mass in Guatemala, the Pope had to stop talking for nearly 30 seconds in the middle of his homily. No one knew if it was because the wind was carrying away the pages of his text, or because with his stiff muscles and bones he slipped down the woven seat of his chair, or because he was feeling increasingly tired and exhausted. We heard him exclaim through the microphone, "Terrible!" But in the end, as if supported by the crowd, we also heard him say tenderly and firmly, "Guatemala, I hold you in my heart!"

Twenty years later...

What kind of country did the Pope come to, to canonize Brother Pedro? Nearly 20 years ago he came to a country in the midst of war, decimated by massacres and a scorched earth policy, one where intellectuals, catechists, priests and nuns were being assassinated. The Pope clamored, "No one should ever again confuse evangelization with subversion" and affirmed that "human promotion is an integral part of evangelization and faith." He also said that "when people are struck, when their rights are violated, when flagrant injustices are committed against them, when they are subject to torture or kidnapping, when their right to life is violated, a crime and a grave offense is committed against God. Then Christ returns to walk the path of his passion and suffer the horrors of the crucifixion in the underprivileged and the oppressed."
In 1996, during his second visit, the Peace Accords had not yet been signed in Guatemala. On that occasion the bishops focused his visit on the long list of "witnesses of the faith," all of those who had been unjustly killed during the war years.

Guatemala’s lights and shadows

In their Pastoral Letter on Brother Pedro, the Guatemala bishops wrote that "the Church and the society that John Paul II will find are not easy to describe, but we can point to lights and shadows."
Among the lights that illuminate Guatemalan society, they wrote, "there is greater awareness of the demand for and exercise of justice and solidarity, of human rights and the value of each individual. We can see an inextinguishable spirit of survival in response to hard daily realities. The dignity of the indigenous cultures is being reaffirmed, while civil society and the rule of law are being strengthened. Concern for the common good is increasing along with public awareness, as shown by the demand for transparent public administration and the number of people seeking freedom, fighting corruption, defending rights and living honestly."
The bishops also point to many shadows and "enormous obstacles that block national reconciliation" and "make dialogue impossible," paralyzing efforts to further the common good. First, they strongly denounce that the Peace Accords "remain a pending task" that "have not gone beyond the letter into the hearts" of people. They say that this "uncovers enormous faults in our institutions" and reveals "the shakiness of each citizen’s awareness" of the difference between the common good and privilege consolidated even by illicit means. They add that "achieving peace may fall by the wayside because of the lack of dialogue, the constant confrontation and the loss of a sense of humanity which impoverishes us all."
The bishops see killings, corruption, injustice, theft and the depredation of the country’s patrimony as shadows hanging over Guatemala. They blame the current government for deceiving and manipulating "the people who deposited their confidence in their representatives," and criticize it for being immersed in "injustice and blows against the innocent." It also holds capital responsible for "robbing the life of the poor through a lack of social conscience, through egotism and indifference to the hunger and misery of those who have lost their work." Although the text does not explicitly name private business, the reference is clear.

Urgent tasks to respond to the crisis

The bishops drew out lines of action. In response to public corruption, they believe there is urgent need for "better administration of public life and social services, with honesty, honor and professionalism," emphasizing transparency and rejecting the assignation of public resources with "a desire for illicit enrichment at the expense of the lives of the poor."
In response to egotism and indifference, they call for a "more balanced and equitable" production of wealth. In response to the injustices and violence of power, they demand effective application of the rule of law, a halt to harassment and control and freedom for "civil organizations working for human rights." They denounce the activities of "groups that act with impunity outside the law."
In response to hunger and misery and, more generally, the growing poverty, they recognize that "the foreign debt and neoliberal processes imposed on the country and the globalization underway" are variables over which the country has little control. In response to the loss of jobs, they speak of internal and external migrations and denounce "the great global and local imbalances in the distribution of wealth" and the serious family and cultural crises this produces.

Who are the poorest?

Finally, with respect to the failure to fulfill the Peace Accords, they draw special attention to the "unresolved and continually postponed problem" of land ownership and use, and promote "a broad national debate on the most viable economic model" and the search for "a rural development project" that considers peasant farmers in an equitable way. The bishops do not take a position on the right to the free movement of labor or the problems awaiting us in the Puebla Panama Plan or the free trade agreements and the FTAA
Towards the end of this eminently practical vision, the bishops reiterate "the challenge of affective and effective solidarity towards the poorest." Who are these poor people in Guatemalan society today? The bishops list them: the thousands who beg in the cities; the landless, jobless peasants forced to migrate; abandoned or single women without work; marginalized urban residents, who are often migrants themselves; children and young people who live on the streets; the illiterate masses without job training or skills; people discriminated against because of their origin, social condition, language or culture; homes divided or destroyed by any of these causes; victims of gangs, prostitution (including child prostitution), drug trafficking and other kinds of organized crime; sick people with no hospital places; the elderly living in solitude and misery; people living with AIDS; and victims of drug addiction.

First denunciations of
sexual abuse by priests

The Pope had just left when the plague of pedophilia was uncovered among Guatemalan clergy as well, when three priests in the archdiocese of Guatemala were accused of sexually abusing children. The bishops promised they would get to the truth and take severe measures, including expulsion from the priesthood and legal steps in the courts.

The bishops issued the following statement on these first three cases on August 27: "The media has reported on certain statements from the former Human Rights Ombudsperson regarding cases of the sexual abuse of minors committed by priests. While maintaining a distance from the tendentious nature of some of these statements and the sensationalizing of such situations, we want to firmly state that sexual abuse of minors is ‘rightly considered a crime by society and is a shocking sin in the eyes of God as well. For this reason, there is no place in the priesthood or in religious life for those who harm children and young people’ (John Paul II, April 23, 2002). The procedure established by canonical law and the most recent provisions of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith will be applied to any priest proven guilty of the crime. The Guatemalan Bishops Conference supports the decision of the Metropolitan Archbishop of Guatemala to form a commission of priest and lay experts to investigate the various denunciations of this kind. Nevertheless, as bishops we will always remain fathers, friends and pastors to all the faithful and in particular to our priests. It is with a thankful spirit that we wish to recognize the devoted, persevering pastoral work of all of Guatemala’s priests."

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