Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 254 | Septiembre 2002



500 Years after the First Mass: A Demobilizing Celebration

On his fourth and last voyage to the Americas, Christopher Columbus "discovered" and traveled the length of Central America’s Caribbean coast from May to December 1502. Honduras’ recent celebrations of this historical event were spectacular, multitudinous… and ultimately demobilizing.

Ismael Moreno, SJ

On August 14, Honduras commemorated the 500th anniversary of the first mass celebrated by Spanish conquistadors on the mainland of the Americas, at a place called Punta Caxinas, now a port area known as Puerto Castilla near the town of Trujillo. Although it was formally a religious act organized by Honduras’ Catholic Church, in which the Catholic faithful expressed the devotion and trust that many still feel for their church celebration, it also revealed almost all of the country’s current contradictions. It demonstrated the noticeable distancing of one sector of the Catholic hierarchy from the lives and situation of the country’s poor and that same sector’s increasing closeness to the powers controlling the state and big business. Also on display were the contradictions within the Catholic Church and the determination of another of its sectors to continue placing its faith in the prophetic dimension of Christianity.

Solemnity and repression

The commemorative mass was both a religious and political act and a social and cultural celebration. The Honduran Catholic hierarchy was accompanied by representatives of those from other countries, including the archbishop of Santo Domingo, primate of the Dominican Republic, who was officially representing Pope John Paul II. He took his place on the main stage alongside the representatives of the three state branches, the King of Spain’s representative, President Francisco Flores of El Salvador and official delegates from various other Latin American governments.

The site was duly safeguarded by the army and police, which carefully organized the security of the different dignitaries in an operation that extended the more than 600 kilometers separating Tegucigalpa, Honduras’ capital, from Trujillo’s historic port. The day before the event, police violently repressed a protest organized by bankrupt coffee growers. Three days earlier, the political governor of the department of Colón, of which Trujillo is the capital, stated that neither indigenous peoples or teachers would be allowed to hold the demonstrations each had announced to make the authorities attending the event aware of their demands. On August 12 and 13, the 60-kilometer highway from Tocoa to Trujillo was scattered with dozens of armored cars to dissuade any group from destabilizing the "laudable religious activities prepared by the ever-respected Catholic Church," in the words of the political governor. During the era of the national security doctrine, this same man had called the church "the enemy of democracy and ally of international communism."

The idea came from
below and within

The celebrations actually grew out of small-scale discussions in the diocese of Trujillo aimed at deciding how to celebrate an historic event that had such an important bearing on the life of the church and the country. Everybody in the diocese readily agreed to use the occasion to hold a serious reflection on both the enlightening and darker aspects of the evangelization carried out over the past 500 years. The idea was to use this as the basis for defining the church’s mission at the beginning of the 21st century and the challenges the country’s current situation pose in order to detail the commitments corresponding to a poor and laic church rooted in the social, economic, political and cultural reality of the country’s poor and excluded.

Armed with these ideas, the diocese began to organize a program involving different activities that would ensure the proposed objectives. A holy mission was planned to be carried out in all of the parishes in the diocese, which included reflections on all of the above-mentioned issues. The diocesan program contemplated a closing ceremony on the same spot where Friar Alejandro celebrated the first mass on the American mainland. The diocese of Trujillo invited the whole Honduran Church to participate in this celebration in August and to make a national commitment during the event.

In the months leading up to the event, the Christian communities of the diocese—which covers the vast departments of Colón and Gracias a Dios on the Honduran Caribbean coast and includes the country’s Garífuna populations—underwent an extensive process of reflection.

As part of the programming for the big event, the organizers decided to parade the image of the Virgin of Suyapa through the streets of the different parishes, culminating with its presence at the final celebration. Thus right from the start the diocese of Trujillo saw the final celebration as concluding a process of reflection and initiating the different commitments acquired during the process.

An opportunity and
a lot of opportunism

The idea of this great celebration was greeted enthusiastically by the archdiocese and opportunistically by the government leadership and certain groups from the big private business sector.

The archdiocese saw the celebration as a great opportunity to present the Catholic Church as united and strong at a time when it is being increasingly questioned following the ongoing trials of priests accused of sexual abuse in the United States. News of these scandals has reached even the most remote corners of Honduras thanks to the globalization of information.

The new government saw the celebration as a good way to legitimize itself with the Catholic faithful and especially with its hierarchy. After all, just months after taking over the state apparatus it has already suffered the erosion and loss of credibility normally reserved for governments that have been in power for several years. The celebration also offered the government the chance to promote tourism in Trujillo’s port area. The tourist industry is one of the main pillars of the government’s economic policy, along with maquiladora free trade assembly plants and the financial system, all in alliance with big private enterprise.

Finally, the religious ceremony provided the perfect opportunity for the big private businesses that control the media and are looking to extend their alliances with government, politicians and other sectors to project the image of a politically stable country and attract foreign investment at a time of notable economic crisis. "The mixture of religious, tourist and diplomatic elements that occurred pains us," reflected the Yoro department’s Conference of Priests and Nuns.

The mixture of these different factors not only emphasized the triumph of the conquistadors 500 years ago, but also placed the present-day victors firmly in the limelight, concealing dark episodes from both past and present. The church sector closely linked to the power groups therefore emerged victorious, overshadowing those that choose to walk humbly alongside the poor.

Although the hierarchy wanted to show a strong and united church, the prevailing image was of a church sitting alongside public officials questioned by society for their lack of ethics and use of state power for personal gain. With the media painting August 14 as a party disinterested in the country’s problems, the religious celebration appeared to be legitimizing discredited political groupings, thus discrediting the Catholic hierarchy. The results of the reflection that the Christian communities of the Trujillo diocese had engaged in were totally absent from the media coverage and the celebration itself. The life, work and feelings of the local church were completely overlooked.

"They just took us
to swell the numbers"

Crowds of spectators turned up on August 13, the day before the celebrations. The organizers promised to put up beautiful shelters of wood and woven palm leaves to provide shade for the bishops, priests and dignitaries. They not only honored that promise but also strung an enormous wire fence to separate the faithful from the dignitaries and the concelebrants in the mass. Meanwhile, the government had promised to guarantee water for the thousands of believers and to install latrines. But not a drop of water was provided and no latrines were built.

The organizers from Tegucigalpa were particularly interested in emphasizing the presence of the honorable domestic and foreign guests. The television cameras focused on each of their faces in turn, but only focused on the crowd as a whole, never showing close-ups of any of the thousands of sun-beaten, sweaty, thirsty faces eagerly awaiting words of hope or change.

These people served as nothing more than spectators of a ceremony organized for a select caste of privileged people and the consumption of television viewers. "The television cameras only presented the nice side of things," said one female parishioner from northern Honduras. "If only the cameras had focused on us, particularly when we woke up on the esplanade. We didn’t have any water or anywhere to relieve ourselves. Everything was laid on for the presidents, bishops, parliamentary representatives and people with top government posts, which isn’t a bad thing in itself, but the church has taught us that we are all equal in the eyes of God, so there shouldn’t be any differences between us. It isn’t right that all those people were abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd, as the gospel puts it. They just took us there to swell the numbers."

Celebrations and contradictions

Despite the difficulties, the people participated with fervor and enthusiasm. One group of nuns concluded that many had traveled from the capital city excited by the idea of the celebration and the outing. It was the first chance for many to visit Honduras’ northern coast and the port of Trujillo and they did not notice the manipulation of the event. "Many of the people who went from our parishes in the capital are used to going hungry, never have water in their houses and don’t even have latrines. What they experienced in Puerto Castilla is what they experience every day," commented a nun who works in one of the capital’s marginalized neighborhoods. "For them, it was a party, because they took advantage of the chance to get to know somewhere new."
One of the priests who stood under the same sun that scorched the thousands of parishioners, summed up the activities of August 14 like this: "This celebration of the 500th anniversary of the first Eucharist in Central America symbolized Honduras’ reality: the poor excluded from a shared fate, the hierarchy at the side of a power group that crushes and disinherits the humble, the military protecting the goods and privileges of those in government… and the Virgin of Suyapa kidnapped by those who hold the power."

Legitimizing harmful convictions

Through this event, the church helped legitimize one of the negative convictions most deeply rooted among the Honduran population: that they just have to put up with the disasters affecting them. If it is the Catholic Church doing the summoning and organizing, the population tends to accept the abandonment and disdain to which they are always subjected more easily and with resignation on the grounds that this happens because they were born to suffer.

The event’s organizers made it perfectly clear to the spectators and the Trujillo diocese communities that it was the select group sitting in the shade on the stage that runs society, resolves problems, makes the decisions, thinks for the rest and can do favors for those who behave themselves, don’t protest and recognize its authority. The church thus helped legitimize another harmful expectation rooted among the Honduran population: that the answers to their problems will come from outside and be provided by others.

Although many used the event to visit Trujillo and did not register the bad treatment, many others gathered there and participated with great faith in the leaders of their church, expecting to hear an opportune voice of accusation and commitment from those with the highest levels of responsibility. The words the ministers uttered, however, were generic and lofty, accepting of the injustice and divorced from the reality facing the poor. They were more an appeal for passivity and conformity, suggesting that the social, economic, agricultural and migratory problems and the violence and insecurity should each be separated and resolved individually, without organizing to find community responses rooted in solidarity. Thus the church helped strengthen another negative conviction internalized by the Honduran population: that all individuals are enclosed in their own disasters and must therefore pray to their own saints and tend their own wounds.

Political strongmen
and authoritarianism

By remaining silent about the country’s serious problems, not mentioning the social and economic problems, corruption, impunity or root causes of civic insecurity, the church helped legitimize the damaging conviction that "my problems are mine alone," while others are responsible for the social, economic and political problems and resolve them when and how they want.

This mentality fuels the culture of political strongmen and authoritarianism that contaminates election campaigns and results. People don’t vote out of a feeling of civic responsibility. They vote because they don’t take responsibility for seeking solutions to public problems and instead select others who will decide and act for them in the public arena. This mentality dominates from the highest state institutions down to the neighborhoods, in the election of the nation’s Presidents and the community’s leaders and in family structures. The power to make decisions is delegated in individuals who speak in the name of the family, the neighborhood or the country and use available resources at their whim to harm or reward those they claim to represent in line with their own particular affinities or phobias. This model, which nurtures the chosen few from birth, is also reproduced in society, where decisions are made by a handful of people who are convinced they own the country, the state, its resources and people. Meanwhile, the rest just limit themselves to obeying and, in the best of cases, receiving prizes from the owning caste.

Organized with showbiz logic

The religious event celebrated on Honduras’ Caribbean coast confirmed exactly what mobilizes the demobilized in Honduran society. Religion is one of the most mobilizing factors, and the more noise the event generates, the larger the attendance and greater the enthusiasm. And the celebrations marking the anniversary of the first mass to take place on terra firma in the Americas were nothing if not lively. That’s the way things usually are in Puerto Castilla, where people gather every week in different churches—both Catholic and Protestant—seeking a religious space that will help them endure the heavy burden of their daily lives. Great, but fleeting enthusiasm marks all of these mobilizations. When religion is reduced to a childlike game involving noise and color, it channels evasion and masks people’s impotence in the face of real problems.

"The Trujillo event was much ado about nothing," said one nun who was in Puerto Castilla on August 14, "a lot of hullabaloo and we ended up worse off than before. We had hoped that the church was going to define its commitments for after August 14, but now that the enthusiasm has died down, we’re left with the frustration of knowing that the church hasn’t lined up behind the poorest people at all. It just expressed its commitment to those in power."
The sponsors organized the Trujillo event as a great spectacle, like those served up by evangelical preachers who fill stadiums with promises of miracle cures to get people to place their hope in extraordinary and supernatural actions and abandon the search for social answers to their problems. This showbiz logic is used for the shows staged by traditional politics as well, and for football, the most national and universal spectacle of them all.

The urgent need for a
civic participation program

Any proposal to work with grassroots sectors must include the strategic objective of helping reveal and break this political and ideological logic. This strategic objective requires the Catholic Church and all sectors that dream of a new Honduras to work on the following focal points within a program for civic participation:
Research and analysis. It is necessary to examine the country’s current situation and the demobilizing phenomena that both conceal and express the model that dominates and excludes grassroots sectors. There is also a need to examine the cultural and historical influences on the Honduran people that provide such fertile ground for the traditional offers, as well as the historical, human and cultural ways resistance has been expressed as a factor in the Honduran people’s national identity.

Training in critical, political and transforming awareness. There is a need for ongoing training. This should be neither utilitarian training aimed at responding to immediate needs nor the formation of political or social activists. It is rather a question of training people to permanently oppose the system and facilitate social transformation processes. For this to happen, fixed and mobile training schools have to be organized to provide training on the following issues: ethics; human rights; laws; gender approach; analysis of the current situation and the methodology with which to carry it out; the history of Honduras, its political parties and economic, social and political models; common ground and divergences among grassroots organizations and political parties; social and environmental vulnerability; the methodology of grassroots organizing; and Honduran national and cultural identity.

Organization and management. Organizing must be understood as a process of calling people together, meeting, uniting around common positions, catalyzing and managing so that people and communities can seek answers to their own problems and realize their dreams.

Communication. There is a need to do outreach, to disseminate words, analysis and ideas that favor civic participation. Having our own media, increasing our influence in society and influencing national public opinion by appearing in the mass media will link the goal of civic participation to the whole of Honduran society.

Social and political mobilization. Social, political, recreational, spiritual and cultural forms of mobilization need to be encouraged. A civic participation program should never finance any kind of project and should not supply economic resources. It should rather be an ongoing and institutional program that facilitates inputs for research, analysis, training and communications so that people develop the capacity to respond in an organized way and take responsibility for their own decisions.

Coordination and solidarity. There is a need for a geographical opening up that transcends localism. This means getting involved at the local level and accompanying local processes, but with a regional, national and Central American vision.

Human rights and the fight against impunity. The fight for human rights and against corruption and impunity must be a central element of the program. This involves providing legal training and advice to the different social sectors on how to defend their rights, in coordination with other sectors and with national and international bodies.

Let’s start dreaming
of the 1000th anniversary

The closing thoughts of the Honduran Jesuit’s monthly publication A Mecate Corto on this celebration provide a succinct and forward-looking conclusion to the demobilizing events of August 14: "Let’s start dreaming about the celebration of the next five hundred years. Ordinary people will organize the celebrations, while the cardinals and bishops listen to what they have to say. Nobody will think about raising fences because there will be no poor and no tycoons, just fair and dignified peoples. And if some persist in hoarding their riches, pride and power, then those few will have to watch the celebrations from beneath the burning midday sun and with their own hands pass gourds of water to the thirsty people. The celebrations will be shared by all. Everyone will be able to taste everything because all will have brought a little to share. And so in 2502 the whole population will celebrate the mass of a fair continent living in solidarity, with no fences or other divisions."

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