Church-State Relations A Chronology – Part II
This month we conclude the chronology of Church-State relations begun in the November issue. We will focus here on the main events that took place between July 1986—when Bishop Pablo Vega was expelled from Nicaragua—and November 1987, by which time Nicaragua and the Nicaraguan Catholic Church were engaged in a vigorous search for peace within the framework of the Esquipulas II accords. This was the longest and most stable period of cordial relations between Church and State since the revolution. To be sure, there have been ups and downs—indeed, there have been moments tense enough to raise fears of a new rupture—but dialogue has prevailed. As we pointed out in Part I, the backdrop against which the escalation of tensions as well as their easing must be read is the evolution of Nicaragua's confrontation with and defeat of US aggression.
Change of tune in the VaticanThe easing of tensions had to begin in the Vatican. Only 15 days before Bishop Vega's expulsion, a very important event signaled a change in the Vatican stance toward the Sandinista revolution. On June 19, 1986, Nicaraguan Vice President Sergio Ramírez, on a visit to Italy, was received by Pope John Paul II in a private audience that lasted half an hour. Afterward, Ramírez met for over an hour with Vatican Secretary of State Agostino Casaroli. The Vice President cited as the chief importance of the meeting the fact that the Pope had been informed "directly" of what was going on in Nicaragua.
At that very moment—only a few days before House approval of $100 million in aid to the contras—Cardinal Obando and Bishop Vega were discrediting the Nicaraguan government in public declarations, thus supplying Reagan with important cards to play in his campaign against Nicaragua while Contadora was at one of its impasses. Since Vatican diplomacy was not noted for active support of Contadora's peace initiatives in the best of times, the little expected and very cordial meeting between the Pope and Nicaragua's Vice President represented an important public sign that the Holy See was beginning to distance itself from US policy.
In another development, on April 2, a new papal nuncio to Nicaragua was named. According to a report that appeared in La Stampa in Turin, Italy, Cardinal Obando had said that the pope would have to choose between himself and then Nuncio Cordero Lanza di Montezímolo, with whom Obando had been in conflict since the Pope's visit to Central America in March 1983. This news, while from very trustworthy sources, could not be verified, but Lanza—nuncio to Honduras and Nicaragua since 1980—was replaced by Paolo Giglio as nuncio to Nicaragua.
Giglio, with strong personal and diplomatic connections in Taiwan, where he lived for seven years, was awaited in Nicaragua with great curiosity and with hope that his efforts would provide a more cooperative alternative in the conflictive relations between the Catholic hierarchy and the government. Other signs that something was changing in the Vatican were the cool reception Vega received in the Vatican after his expulsion from Nicaragua and the fact that in spite of the controversial expulsion—publicly criticized by the Pope himself—Giglio did not delay his arrival in Nicaragua.
The new nuncio's first message, upon arrival in Managua, was still another sign that the Vatican was seeking to initiate a new style in its relations with the revolutionary government, based on recognition of its legitimacy. While the statement did not appear particularly unusual, it contained elements that were a switch from the usually polemic language used by Managua's Church hierarchy: the mission of the Church is to make good citizens, to teach our Catholics to love their country. How can one be a good Christian? Fulfilling one's duty, obeying the laws of the country, loving God, loving one's country, loving one's neighbor, opening one's heart to work and one's conscience to follow the commands of God and of country.
The chief expectation awakened by the new nuncio's arrival was resumption of the Church-State dialogue, which had devolved into an exercise in moral sophistry and was finally stalled in October 1985. The Sandinista government itself contributed to this expectation by making Church-State relations—at the Vatican level and at the national level—the first two points in the "Chicago proposal," a peace initiative put forth by President Ortega on August 2 after conversations with Jesse Jackson in that city. In the proposal, Nicaragua issued a broad appeal to undermine Reagan's aggressive campaign for $100 million in contra aid. The Chicago Proposal contained calls to the owners of La Prensa, to the Central American governments (especially Honduras and Costa Rica), to the US government and even to President Reagan personally, who was invited to visit Nicaragua. But the first two points of that peace initiative—already nearly lost to memory—were addressed to the hierarchy of the Church:
1. The government of Nicaragua is willing to immediately establish a constructive, frank and systematic dialogue with the Vatican in regard to the relationship between Church and State.
2. With a view to renewing the dialogue with the Bishops' Conference of Nicaragua, the Government of Nicaragua is requesting meetings with the Conferences during August, and should it be necessary Nicaragua proposes the establishment of an ecumenical mediation commission.
While neither the Vatican nor the bishops' conference ever responded to this proposal, the time was now ripe for dialogue and the easing of tensions with both, even beyond the scope of the proposal.
Why did the Vatican change the confrontational stance toward the revolutionary government it had maintained consistently for seven years? The reasons we noted over a year ago are still valid:
* The Nicaraguan hierarchy's image was becoming tarnished throughout the world, and especially in Latin America, due to Cardinal Obando's and Bishop Vega's agreement with US policy, which offended Latin America's nationalist sentiments. A mistaken policy toward Nicaragua, a country admired in the continent for its struggle and supported by the Latin American Contadora initiative, could prove fatal for the Vatican's entire Latin American strategy.
* The Nicaraguan bishops' positions of complicity with or silence about the US aggression contradicted the position of some US bishops who consistently condemned Reagan administration policy toward Nicaragua as "illegal and immoral." This tension between the Church of Nicaragua and one of the most organized and financially powerful churches of the world had not gone unnoticed by the Vatican.
* The sphere of influence and action of the bishops and clergy opposed to the revolution was being increasingly limited by restrictive measures with which the government responded to the hierarchy's confrontational policy, and that was taking its toll on the Church as an institution. It was becoming more evident every day that Nicaragua was not Poland (as John Paul II might have thought at one time), that the banner of the "persecuted Church" was not being taken up by the majority of the Nicaraguan people, and that political destabilization could not be effectively carried out in the arena of popular religious sentiment or of church politics.
* The Vatican was aware of the diplomatic victories being won by the Sandinista government and of the military victories being won by the Nicaraguan army against the contra forces. It was also aware that Nicaragua is not Grenada, and a direct intervention by the United States would entail a bloodbath.
The Vatican ran a great risk maintaining a deligitimizing and confrontational policy toward a revolutionary government in which the presence of Christians is so public and so decisive. The risk became even greater once the counterrevolution was being defeated. The Vatican could not afford to appear to be either on the side of the eventual invaders nor on the side of the discredited and defeated "contras," regardless of the fact that some of them carried the name of God on their banners.
Traditional Vatican pragmatism finally caught all the signals being sent from Central America—including the final one that the Sandinistas themselves sent via the show of force in expelling Vega—and it sent answering signals that indicated it was committed to a tactical accommodation. A relaxing of tensions began in the second half of 1986.
The God of history in the Nicaraguan Constitution
In August 1985 the Constitutional Commission of Nicaragua's National Assembly called all the political parties and social organizations of the country to participate in the preparation of the new Constitution. While the Protestant churches of the Evangelical Committee for Development Assistance (CEPAD) responded to this first invitation, the bishops' conference did not. Nor did the bishops explain their silence on the subject.
Nearly a year later, in May 1986, the second stage of the consultation on the Constitution began with a series of open forums, held all over the country, involving different sectors of the population—professionals, intellectuals, teachers, women, the military, factory workers, farmers, peasants… More than 100,000 people thus participated in what were sometimes very impassioned debates on the future Constitution. The largest of the forums specifically for Protestants and Catholics was held in Managua in June, with about 1,000 people attending. Humberto Solís Barker, Sandinista representative to the National Assembly and a well-known Catholic, opened the forum with the following words: "If our bishops won't attend when they are invited, we're here, the people of God, the Church, to answer the call that has been made." Contributions addressing a wide variety of subjects were debated for four hours, including conscientious objection to the draft, decriminalizing abortion and freedom of religious teaching.
Perhaps because of this large-scale participation by Christians, the bishops broke their silence and issued a document on June 9. Entitled "Pastoral Contribution: The Constitution, Guarantee of Liberty and Sovereignty of the Citizenry," it was signed only by Managua's auxiliary bishop, Bosco Vivas. In a rather abstract style, the document addressed "the most relevant aspects" on which the conference wanted to express its opinion: human rights, the rights of the family, freedom of conscience, education and culture. It also included the following statement, which was questioned by some Nicaraguans: "Our national identity has been forged historically in the Christian identity which, with its moral force, has promoted a sense of national unity and sovereignty. Christianity has been a unifying and binding factor. It has been a awareness-building source of personal and collective liberation for our people." There were no other signs of polemic in the document, and in its general tone a legitimization of the institutionalization process could be detected. Nor did it refer to the invocation of the name of God in the Preamble to the Constitution, a theme that emerged as one of the most controversial when the draft of the Constitution began to be discussed.
Traditionally, Latin American Constitutions begin with a solemn invocation of God. It was clear from the outset of discussion that the Nicaraguan Constitution must invoke the names of Nicaragua's founding fathers, in particular of Augusto C. Sandino. But, as one member of the Popular Social Christian Party pointed out, this raised another question: "If the name of Sandino has to be invoked, how can we not invoke the name of the God Sandino invoked in his struggle against the Yankees?" Recalling that Sandino was a deeply religious man raised the banner for the debate.
There were various positions on this subject among the seven political parties in the National Assembly. For the Conservatives, it was practically a condition of signing the Constitution that God be invoked in the Preamble in classic Latin American style. They wanted to refer to the Creator God, the metaphysical God, the Supreme Being. Their position was defended in the pages of La Prensa. The Popular Social Christian Party subscribed to the same position, but was not nearly as belligerent about it, and the Conservatives eventually backed off as well. The Liberals, Socialists, Communists and Marxist-Leninists, to different degrees, were all against the inclusion of the name of God in the opening of the Constitution, arguing that a civil character was appropriate to the document. In the final debate specifically on the Preamble, the arguments of both the Liberals and the left groups had a Victorian character: the God they were rejecting or questioning was fundamentally the abstract, distant, metaphysical God that the freethinkers and rationalists of the nineteenth century had rejected in their time.
The subject was an important one for the FSLN, principally because the massive participation of Christians in the revolution constitutes one of the revolution's most original characteristics and is an essential contribution to the political history of our time. Sandinistas, believers and nonbelievers alike, were very attentive throughout the year to the proposals of Christians in the base communities and those involved in liberation theology. For them, God must be invoked as the God of history, who is revealed fundamentally through the committed praxis of believers—for example, through the actions of many involved in the insurrection and the reconstruction of Nicaragua.
Finally, it was the line of thought proposed by the Christians committed to the revolutionary process that carried the day, primarily because it was most appropriate to Nicaragua's reality. The final draft of the Preamble that went to the Assembly for debate, however, did not actually mention God, but rather "Christians, motivated by religious sentiments," who had participated in the liberation struggle. The Christian Sandinista representatives in the Assembly fought to have the name of God explicitly invoked, but in the end, the first Constitution written in Nicaragua's history with pluralistic political participation and with the participation of the people, invoked, in its Preamble, the name of "...the Christians who, because of their faith in God, have committed themselves and immersed themselves in the struggle for the liberation of the oppressed..."
The inclusion of the name of God as the maker of history in the commitment of those who believe in God and struggle for change is an historic innovation. It is the first time in contemporary history that this image of God is held up in a legal text of this nature. This innovation took place in a country in revolution on the very continent where liberation theology was born and raised, born for the liberation of the oppressed peoples mentioned in the Nicaraguan Constitution.
Church-State dialogue—A new stageOn September 27, 1986, once the new nuncio had taken the pulse both of the nation and of the Church, talks between the revolutionary government and the Catholic Church hierarchy resumed. Following a first meeting between Cardinal Obando and President Ortega and then of all the bishops with the President, two dialogue commissions were established. The Church commission was to consist of Bosco Vivas, Auxiliary Bishop of Managua; Bishop Carlos Santi of Matagalpa; and Papal Nuncio Paolo Giglio. Representatives on the government commission were Minister of Justice Rodrigo Reyes and Minister of the Presidency René Núñez.
An earlier dialogue, initiated after the elections in December 1984, while Vega was president of the bishops' conference, had awakened similar expectations. At that time six meetings were held, but with little result. The talks were suspended, for no particular reason other than inertia, in October 1985, and tensions began to rise once again. This break in the dialogue was followed by a silence which was never really a truce and only contributed to increasing tensions.
From the very start of the 1986 talks it was clear that this was a new situation, not just a continuation of the interrupted talks. The shift in the Vatican, seen in the assignment of the new nuncio, and the clear evidence at the national and international level of the consolidation of the revolution and the military defeat of the counterrevolution, made it obvious to the Nicaraguan Church hierarchy that it was time for a new relationship with the Sandinistas.
The positions taken by the two parties to the dialogue were clearly delineated in the straightforward public statements that followed the first meeting on September 27. The government was looking for a "general agreement" that would provide a framework for stable and enduring Church-State relations. The hierarchy, through Cardinal Obando, began to talk about a "practical plan" to resolve specific points that had been particularly problematic in Church-State relations.
By the second meeting, the government commission presented an eleven-point agenda to the Church commission, including issues such as parochial school curriculum, the use of communications media, the social projects of the Church, and respect for the laws of the country. Although the Church commission had agreed to present its own list of topics, it did not do so at this meeting. At the end of this second round, René Núñez indicated to the press that it had been decided that the dialogue would work toward a general agreement, at the same time looking for ways to address the particular points that the bishops were concerned about, such as the reopening of Radio Católica and the return of Father Carballo.
The resumption of the Church-State dialogue and the prospects it offered for the normalization of relations deprived the Reagan Administration of one of its favorite justifications for its counterrevolutionary war: the supposed persecution of the Nicaraguan Church. But the talks proceeded slowly. In November no talks were held, supposedly because of the celebration of the Eucharistic Congress.
The Eucharistic Congress: An important testFrom November 16 to 23 a series of religious and liturgical events were held in different areas of Nicaragua as part of a National Eucharistic Congress convoked by the Catholic hierarchy in Nicaragua and announced in their pastoral letter of April 6, 1986. The center of the Congress was Managua, with 10,000 first communions celebrated on Sunday the 16th and an open-air Mass on the evening of the 23rd, with Cardinal Opilio Rossi, the Pope's special envoy to the event, presiding. Also attending as invited guests were several US and Latin American bishops and cardinals, notable among them Cardinal Law of Boston, Monsignor Quarracino from Argentina, Monsignor Castrillón of Colombia, president and secretary respectively of the Latin American Bishops’ Conference (CELAM) and Bishop McGrath, Archbishop of Panama. But Central America was not fully represented; the Costa Rican bishops' conference was absent and the conferences of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador sent second-level representatives.
Some 35,000 people attended the solemn closing Mass, many in expectation of hearing Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who was a special guest at the event. The Nobel Prize winner spoke at the end of the Mass on a subject that seemed to some a strange one for a country at war: "The major threat to peace," she said, "is abortion, because it destroys two lives: the life of the child and the conscience of the mother."
Given the improvement in relations between the hierarchy and the government, it was expected that the Congress, and especially the events in Managua, would be seen as a test of the authenticity and the viability of the new climate of détente. Well in advance of the Congress, the government put at the hierarchy's disposal all the logistical support that such an event would require: lodging, protocol privileges, security measures, transportation for the foreign bishops and other invited guests, facilities for the events with large crowds and access for the bishops and other organizers and guests to state-owned media so they could explain the purpose of the Congress to the widest possible audience. The organizers of the event—the hierarchy and lay people of Managua, most of them with connections to the private business sector of the opposition—declined the offer, including access to the media, demanding once again the reopening of Radio Católica. They did, however, accept protocol privileges for the foreign guests.
President Ortega held meetings with the US bishops, the representatives of CELAM, the Papal delegate and Mother Teresa. At the end of the meetings the visiting bishops, answering journalists' questions, unanimously affirmed the importance of the Church-State dialogue begun in September and the relaxation of tensions evident in the freedom with which all the events of the Congress were celebrated.
Mother Teresa told the press at the end of her interview with President Ortega that the Nicaraguan government had given its permission for the sisters of her order to work there. The government had previously denied permission, since the order planned to work in Managua's El Calvario parish where the conflictive Oriental Market is located, and the government feared this could be manipulated by some opposition groups. "The President told me I could send not just 4 sisters, but 400 if I want," Mother Teresa said happily. On December 8 four sisters of the missionary order arrived in Nicaragua, and since that date sisters from this order have been working in El Calvario.
The state-owned media gave full coverage to events celebrated in the various dioceses, with "La Primerísima," the government radio station, even broadcasting the closing mass live. The moderate tone of the homilies and messages were evident. More significant still was the fact that the message sent by Pope John Paul II made no reference, either explicitly or implicitly, to the "persecution" of the Nicaraguan Church, as on other occasions. Nor did it mention the bloody war the country was undergoing. The theme of the Congress was "reconciliation," a term that evokes memories of the bishops' controversial proposal in 1984 that the Sandinista government dialogue with the contras. But in his use of the term "reconciliation" and in his message, the Pope made no allusion to this possibility, emphasizing instead the theological appeals for reconciliation within the Church and within the nation, and avoiding any explicit criticism of the "Popular Church."
Among the public attending the closing mass, the wealthy and middle class were in evidence, easily identifiable by their better clothes, camping paraphernalia, thermoses and folding chairs. They applauded frequently, enthusiastically cheering Cardinal Obando at every opportunity. The majority of the audience were, however, poor Managuans and some peasants from the country's heartland, who participated devoutly in the Mass, singing the traditional songs chosen for the celebration. The 120 priests from all over the country who concelebrated the Mass included some 30 who had also concelebrated the closing Mass of the Way of the Cross for Peace and Life initiated by Father Miguel D'Escoto a few months earlier.
Although it seems clear that the Eucharistic Congress was planned during the height of Church-State tensions as part of the Church's "pastoral plan of provocation," the climate of détente prevailed. The Eucharistic Congress became instead a proof that the time for reconciliation had already come.
On the eve of the last serious crisisBut by December, the momentum of the dialogue had slowed. In this month, Barricada published a long interview with Vatican Nuncio Giglio that revealed to the Nicaraguan public eye the conservative thought of the Vatican diplomat who had originally been seen as more open to social change. Perhaps that hope had been more a case of wishful thinking than the fruit of analysis, as the following selections from that interview reveal:
“It is necessary to have the rich and the poor, because the rich are destined to provide employment for the poor. If everyone were rich, no one would want to work. It's not possible for all of us to be at the same level. In any country not everyone can be President. There is one President, one Vice President and ministers. In the army it's the same thing: there are generals, lieutenants and soldiers. In the same way, the ones who are in charge in the family are the father and the mother.”
“Extreme poverty must not be justified. Lately I've been reading some of the statements of Brazilian Bishop Helder Camara, who said that after 2,000 years of Christianity there are millions of people—I don't remember the figure exactly—who live under inhuman conditions. This cannot and must not be.”
“We can't all be rich. Nor can we all be poor. As I said, we have to have rich and poor so the latter can work for the former. But the poor must live in conditions that are decent and human, and have a minimum of comfort, but not luxury, because luxury is not necessary for life.”
In January there was, once again, no meeting of the Church-State dialogue. The meetings resumed February 9, on which occasion the bishops finally presented their list of agenda topics.* In statements to the press, both Bishop Vivas and Minister of the Presidency Núñez recognized that there were points common to both lists and said that these would be discussed at the next meeting. Cardinal Obando made statements abroad indicating that as a condition of beginning such discussions the Church was requesting the return of Fr. Carballo and Bishop Vega and the reopening of Radio Católica.
*While in Nicaragua the greater part of the hierarchy was definitely backing the dialogue as a way of resolving tensions, Bishop Vega, speaking February 19 on the contra radio station from El Salvador, compared the dialogue with "those homosexual marriages they're talking about these days." "What is a marriage between homosexuals? It is simply a sterile masturbation, with no true hope of achieving a communion that will generate new life. In the same way, a dialogue with people who are totalitarian Marxists is nothing more than a marriage—which can't even be called a marriage—between homosexuals. It's sterile, it doesn't lead to anything, it doesn't generate anything because it doesn't recognize that it is the meeting between matter and spirit that will truly make a new man."
The hierarchy’s insistence on resolving particular concrete problems before hammering out a general accord with the state could create a vicious circle, cautioned Núñez. "We believe that to do this seriously and to forge a new, more stable and positive relationship, a general agreement is needed so we can resolve specific, concrete issues in a definitive way." At the April 2 meeting. the Church agreed to discuss a potential general agreement, the points that should be included in such an agreement were laid out, and the government proposed creating a sub-commission to resolve the specific problems brought up by some of the bishops. Nevertheless, the April meeting—which ended on such an optimistic note that Bishop Santi said a general agreement could be signed before the end of the year—was, in fact, the last session of the dialogue to be held in 1987. The talks were stalled after the May 3 meeting was unilaterally cancelled by the bishops. It became evident that the cold war still prevailed, and all that had been accomplished seemed to go by the board once more.
In the heat of Contragate—a crisis for Reagan and an event that roused the Democratic Party from its long slumber--Costa Rica's President Arias began to put together the first version of his peace plan. Originally conceived of as an instrument of political pressure, in the form of an ultimatum against Nicaragua, the plan was in complete agreement with Reagan's strategy except that it did not include continuation of the contra war as a means of military pressure. In line with Arias' tactics, seven opposition parties in Nicaragua—the pro-US extra-parliamentary parties of the Coordinadora and some others represented in the National Assembly—wrote a nine-point plan and publicly approached Cardinal Obando for his endorsement.
In this delicate moment, news published outside of Nicaragua revealed that the cardinal was working with the opposition parties on plans based on information that had been discussed within the Church-State meetings. From the very beginning of the talks, a strict public silence on the course of the discussions had been agreed to by both parties. It appeared that the cardinal was leaking information over Church-State differences in an attempt to get back in the public arena. President Ortega addressed this gently in an April 25th De Cara al Pueblo meeting with base Christian communities:
“The dialogue between the hierarchy and the state is a problem of interest to the Nicaraguan people and the international community .... The dialogue with the Catholic Church hierarchy is a dialogue we have always considered necessary. They have also considered it necessary.... And in these months it has been possible to hold some meetings. There have already been five meetings in the talks between the Catholic Church hierarchy and the government of Nicaragua.
“We have wanted to maintain this dialogue and we intend to maintain it with the most constructive spirit, and we don't want to make it an occasion for confrontation. For this reason, we have not, for our part, made public many of the details that are being treated there in the talks. There have been errors on the other side. They have made public certain private matters discussed in the talks that put the very dialogue at risk, because these can then be turned into a public debate and become a propaganda struggle and a confrontation. Both we and the Catholic Church hierarchy are convinced that this would not be helpful...”
On this same occasion President Ortega made some valuable statements on relations between the Sandinista revolution and Christians more generally: “When we talk about the dialogue with the Catholic Church hierarchy, we consider ourselves representatives of a Christian people. We represent this people in relation to the organization of the nation, the state. We are not replacing, nor do we intend to replace, the guidance, from a spiritual point of view, that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church must take in relation to the Catholic people of Nicaragua. But this is a people that is sustained by its Christian base. Here we can't really talk of Christians and atheists. We can't say that atheism is a massive movement in our country....
“Even when we all say we have good will in supporting the dialogue, there are those who are interested in a complete and definitive confrontation between the revolution and the Catholic Church hierarchy. I insist on saying "the Catholic Church hierarchy" because there can be no confrontation with Christianity in this revolution. That would be a confrontation of the people with itself....
“The problem begins when there are those who narrowly define the word ‘Church,’ thinking only of the hierarchy. That is a bad beginning. As I recently told a US journalist, I haven't been excommunicated and I was baptized and confirmed in the Catholic Church and I identify myself with Christianity. That's why I interpret the Church, as many others do as well, to be the People of God. Without the people there can be no Church. There can be a hierarchy, but there can be no Church.”
President Daniel Ortega's identification with Christian faith was revealed most explicitly in the extensive interview published in the November issue of Playboy, in which he lingered over little-known personal anecdotes, including memories of his youth when he felt a vocation to the priesthood. The end of the interview went like this:
“ ...We have to pray to God that He illuminate the mind of President Reagan so he won't continue to commit human rights violations in Nicaragua. I don't think Reagan has been illuminated by God. I think he's closer to the darkness of the Devil. But we hope the light arrives before he commits the insanity of invading Nicaragua.
“Playboy: Then you still believe in God?
“Playboy: And do you consider yourself a communist?
“Ortega: I am a Sandinista.”
The blood of a martyr: Seed of the Church of the PoorIn May 1987, the contra forces' umbrella organization UNO changed its name and restructured its board in a cosmetic attempt to cover up the blemishes uncovered by Contragate. In doing so it added a religious finish to its makeover. On May 8 in a parish near Managua, Bishop Bosco Vivas solemnly announced to the faithful gathered there that the Virgin Mary had appeared again to the peasant Bernardo, native of Cuapa.* This time she had appeared under the name of the Virgin of Victories. According to Bernardo himself, Mary had asked him to pray the rosary and indicated a particular wish, which Bishop Vivas reported:
* In May 1981 the alleged apparitions of the Virgin in the village of Cuapa, Chontales, were much talked about throughout Nicaragua. Bishops Obando, Vivas and Vega, along with the more traditional Catholic sectors, endorsed and promoted this "devotion." a "return to the traditions of the Church and of holy water" and entrusted Bernardo with propagating the devotion to the wounds on Christ's back.
“Mary has said that in all the homes there must be burnings of bad books, books where God is denied, where sin is taught. These books must not be in your houses because they are the very agents of Satan. Our Lady wants us not to have the enemy in our homes and we must comply with what Our Lady has transmitted through Bernardo.”
Bishop Vivas said that he himself had begun to carry out Mary's wish, lighting the first bonfire the night before. Another one was lit in Cuapa. What went up in flames were mainly writings of Marxist authors, or of authors judged to be Marxist by traditionalists. Bernardo, who saw the vision of Mary, is a 50-year-old peasant whom Vivas admitted to the seminary after the first apparitions. He related his experience to the worshippers gathered in the church, recalling that the Virgin told him to “return to the traditions of the Church and of holy water” and entrusted him with propagating the devolution to the wounds on Christ’s back.
From March on, the news of these apparitions were publicized on anti-Sandinista radio stations in the area. "15th of September," the official contra radio station in Honduras, announced: "This is the message of the Virgin, coming to us two weeks after the miracle: 'I say to you Nicaraguans that soon you will be happy...' The Virgin wants Bernardo to pass her message on to us: 'Suffering people of Nicaragua, you will soon receive a new life, full of joy.'"
Six months later, the new devotion, which one commentator labeled "St. Mary of the Contras" and Ernesto Cardenal called "Our Lady of Oliver North," does not seem to have taken root. No new book burnings have occurred and the matter appears to have been a flash in the pan, more typical of the early days of tension.
Another fire was kindled when Newsweek reported on the cardinal's alleged involvement in the network of beneficiaries of Contragate money by way of the personal contacts Oliver North established from the White House basement. Although the evidence was not conclusive, US journalists had some indications of such a connection, including a compromising letter of credit. This news strained Church-State relations all over again. The cardinal refused to comment on the matter, characterizing it all as "lies." The Sandinistas started making their charges against him again after careful restraint for many months.
While this fire was still smoldering, its flames were fanned by a US-ªmade mine planted in a road by the icontras, which blew up the truck of the Matiguás, Matagalpa parish. Brother Tomás Zavaleta, a Franciscan from El Salvador, was killed and Father Ignacio Urbina, also a Franciscan, was seriously hurt, as was a lay colleague of the parish (see envío, August 1987).
After visiting the morgue where the mangled body of the first religious worker killed by the counterrevolution lay, the President of Nicaragua asked in a speech to a group of peasants, "What is Cardinal Obando going to say now?" The following day, in the homily at his normal Mass, the cardinal answered: “Who did it? Well, that is a question in a world so confusing, in a world where information is so manipulated... Who? God only knows.”
"God only knows how much money he is receiving from the CIA!" President Ortega immediately retorted, noting that the cardinal's position and the Newsweek revelations suggested a review of the Church-State dialogue, paralyzed for the previous months due to the hierarchy's inertia. "Better that we speak with the one who is paying him."
Nuncio Giglio, who celebrated the funeral mass for Brother Tomás before the body was sent home to El Salvador, chose terminology as ambiguous as that of the cardinal: “We lament death, because death is an ugly thing.... If there is peace there are no deaths.... The cause of war is the lack of peace, the lack of love. The different ideas that Nicaraguans have provoke war.”
In a radio interview, Father Miguel D'Escoto again took up the language he had used during the February 1986 Way of the Cross: “I see in the declarations of the nuncio a clear desire not to call things by their name.... He has chosen the path—why not admit it—of covering up the truth, to speak half-truths. An anti-evangelical and anti-historic path. Why say ‘death’ and not ‘killing’? Why say ‘death is ugly’ and not say ‘killing is a crime’? ...The whole world knows what Obando has been unable to know, what he has not wanted to admit knowing: that Nicaragua is being martyred because it refuses to go down on its knees before the United States and say: ‘Thy will be done.’ ...They don't have the courage and the evangelical valor to call things by their name. This makes evident the state of moral bankruptcy of those who call themselves representatives of Christ. The cardinal and the nuncio will be remembered in future years. And those who want to disparage the Church will use these declarations as examples of anti-people and anti-peace positions.”
For Nicaragua's Church of the Poor, the martyrdom of Brother Tomás was a unifying factor that resonated in the depth of a consciousness that had perhaps become too inured to war. This could be seen mainly among the religious of Nicaragua, as divided as other sectors. Called together by the Franciscans, brothers of Tomás, they set aside differences accumulated over the years and met, united by the common desire for peace. In fact, the document prepared by the Franciscan Province of Central America and Panama, which dozens of religious from all over the country with very diverse political tendencies signed and which was read at the end of the mass commemorating the murder of Brother Tomás in Matiguás, represented what was perhaps the most pluralist position against US aggression that the Church of Nicaragua had taken in all the years of war.
“Brothers: from a Gospel perspective, we oppose the unjust and immoral aggression that our people, victims of a policy that assaults the most sacred principles of human rights, are suffering. We do not want more war and pain; we long for peace and respect for our Nicaraguan land.
“We call on the government of Nicaragua to tirelessly exhaust all peaceful means and to continue furthering the democratic-popular character of the revolution, to the benefit of the poorest sectors, most needful of vindication, without forgetting the totality of the population that sincerely aspires to a peaceful and just life. We also ask that it be ever alert to correct errors and deviations that arise in this process. We call on all people of the Church, bishops, priests, clergy and laity, to bear witness to the good news of Jesus through unity in plurality.”
Only six days after this unified celebration in a mountainous war zone of Nicaragua, 34 days after the martyrdom of Brother Tomás, the five Central American Presidents signed Esquipulas II—as both the accords and the presidential meeting at which they were signed are called by Central Americans. At first glance it seemed to many a miracle; the accords raised tremendous hope. They not only doused the fire just as a new rupture between Church and state appeared inevitable, but also created the possibility of qualitatively different relations between the two and of greater unity within the Church itself.
A Church united for peaceWhile it is not yet possible to accurately evaluate the significance for the Church of the new period ushered in by the signing of the peace treaty, it is clear that Esquipulas II is a watershed, one of those historical moments that permit one to speak of a "before" and an "after."
With Esquipulas II, perceptions about the reversibility of the Sandinista revolution appear to have changed, both among the four other Central American governments and among the Catholic hierarchy and a sector of the Church. The signing of the accords signals for the first time a generalized recognition of the reality of the revolution, an acceptance of its legitimacy and irreversibility. This change is based on evidence that the revolution, which has defeated the counterrevolution, is strong and cannot be reversed militarily. It is reinforced by the perseverance of the Latin American initiatives of the Contadora and Support Group countries. With Esquipulas II, both Central America and the Church hierarchy have finally been persuaded that a social revolution that cannot be considered merely a passing episode has taken place in the region. Although the Church hierarchy continues to see this process of change as an ideological enemy, it understands that the military road will not resolve these differences and confrontation will not guarantee the interests of the ecclesiastical institution.
The text of the Esquipulas II accords hands a clear leadership role to the Catholic hierarchies of the countries in the area by establishing that a bishop must be on the National Reconciliation Commission (CNR), the body assigned to watch over and provide follow-up to fulfillment of the accords. At a moment of tension as serious as that which characterized Nicaraguan Church-State relations on the eve of the Guatemalan meeting, it was as much a challenge for the bishops' conference as for the government to accept this role. But the accords demanded a constructive rapprochement, and that is what occurred.
Four days after the accords were signed, and ahead of the date fixed by them, the President of Nicaragua called on the political parties and the bishops' conference to make up their lists of three candidates from which he was to select one member each to participate in the commission. This communication was preceded by a long private interview between President Ortega and Cardinal Obando, from which an important political shift could already be deduced.
On August 20, after a four-hour meeting, the bishops presented their list: Bishops Obando, Vivas and Schlaefer. Five days later the CNR was chosen. Cardinal Obando was chosen as the delegate of the bishops' conference, with Bishop Bosco Vivas as his alternate.* As the "distinguished citizen" on the CNR, the government named Reverend Gustavo Parajón, a Baptist minister and president of the Evangelical Committee for Development Assistance (CEPAD), a coordinating body of 45 Protestant denominations.
The presence of Parajón gave the national commission an ecumenical character that is also reflected in the local commissions that emerged immediately afterward. This practical ecumenism is a concrete contribution by Nicaragua to the spirit of reconciliation, unity and pluralism that the peace accords attempt to promote. (In Nicaragua more than 15% of the national population is Protestant.)
At the commission's formal inauguration, many were surprised and hopeful to see signs of a new climate, in particular President Ortega and Cardinal Obando praying together—which would have been unthinkable only a month earlier. At the President's invitation, the cardinal closed the historic event with the following prayer:* “Lord Jesus Christ, you came to this land to unite men with God and with each other. You have come to bring down the wall of hate that separates the two peoples. Help us, Lord, so that we Nicaraguans stay united, that love and charity reign among us.”
*The naming of the alternate was important, since during the entire month of October the cardinal was in Rome, participating in the bishops' synod. Bishop Vivas was chosen despite his confrontational conduct.
“We are convinced that if we have a firm faith, we can move mountains, but when love and charity are conspicuous by their absence, this serves no one. If we speak in tongues of men and angels and have not love and charity, we are like a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
“May love reign, Lord, so that the Nicaraguan family may be reconciled and thus care for life, defend life, promote life. That we may, Lord, build a peace that is the fruit of justice, that is supported in truth, in love, in justice and in liberty. Give us strength, Lord, to be able to surrender hate and reconcile ourselves and be able to build this homeland, because we are convinced that even though the homeland is small, we who dream of it are great. We ask this of you through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
During the event, Daniel Ortega announced that Bishop Vega, Father Carballo and Father Benito Pitito, an Italian priest who was one of the ten foreign priests expelled from Nicaragua in July 1984, could return to Nicaragua. The Cardinal's insistent request in the Church-State dialogue was thus being answered within the framework of a newer and broader national dialogue.*
*Fathers Carballo and Pitito returned to Nicaragua on September 13. Carballo returned to his parish and to the leadership of Radio Católica. Father Pitito went back to Italy a short time later. Bishop Pablo Vega did not choose to return, alleging that he had more contact with Nicaraguans outside than he did inside and that he did not want to "lend himself to the deception" of the steps the Nicaraguan government was taking
On September 1, when the CNR was inaugurated, Vice President Sergio Ramírez announced that, by unanimous consent of its members to a request by President Ortega, Cardinal Obando would preside over the commission. In his frank declarations, the cardinal insisted that the CNR should be judged a posteriori and not a priori, admitting that the government had "good will" and recognizing that he had received pressures—obviously from the right, although he did not say so explicitly—to abandon the commission. From the beginning, the cardinal expressed his personal opinion in favor of a total amnesty, the complete lifting of the state of emergency and the reopening of Radio Católica, even before the 90-day period spelled out in the accords had ended. "If only President Reagan could converse with the government of Nicaragua," he added, although he stressed that to exhort the US government to end its support to the counterrevolution was not his task but that of "governments."
When Pope John Paul II traveled to the United States in mid-September, Cardinal Obando went to Miami to meet with him, but no interview took place. Many in Nicaragua expected public and explicit support for the peace accords from the Pope on his trip to the United States. Among them, Popular Social Christian Party head Mauricio Díaz, who visited the nuncio, requested a stronger posture from the Vatican in the Central American peace process. The nuncio gave him no concrete response and the Pope did not pronounce the hoped-for words, demonstrating again the tremendous caution that the Catholic hierarchy at the highest levels adopts toward the forces of US imperialism. It is a caution that contrasts even with the critical declarations European and Latin American governments allied with the United States make of the current administration's Nicaragua policy.
Esquipulas II awoke among Nicaraguans the feeling, almost the conviction, that peace was at hand. This mobilized the population in the war zones—spontaneously at first and in a more organized way later—to actively speed up the peace process on the ground. This desire and conviction are behind the local peace commissions created in municipalities, towns and villages of the war zones with the principal mission of making the peace accords known, calling on the contras to lay down their arms and take amnesty, guaranteeing the rights of those who have taken amnesty and helping them to become reintegrated into their communities.
In the more than 200 such local commissions that emerged throughout the war zones, the churches played a key role through the parish priests, delegates of the word, Protestant pastors, religious and catechists who joined and in many cases headed up the commissions. The following two examples of the composition of these commissions illustrate this. At the beginning of September there were already 20 commissions in Region I (Estelí and Nueva Segovia). Participating on them were 26 private producers, 13 Protestant pastors, priests and 8 ex-contras. At the end of September there were 58 commissions in Region V (Boaco and Chontales), with 108 private producers, 55 catechists, 40 deacons and delegates of the word, 38 "distinguished citizens," 23 Protestant pastors, 11 priests and 5 nuns.
Departmental peace commissions were also created. Lisímaco Vílchez, bishop of Jinotega, put himself at the head of the commission in his department at the very beginning. Since then he has played an active role for peace, traveling to every corner of his diocese. "I do it as a Nicaraguan," he said, "because we are all interested in peace. We must speak only one language, that of love, so that it may contribute to achieving peace." Very soon more than 40 local commissions in his diocese were working in coordination with the departmental one.
The flourishing of the peace commissions, in which practical ecumenism was being lived out, has been another of Nicaragua's contributions to the spirit of Esquipulas: national reconciliation has not been seen only as a responsibility of the highest level of power, but as a task for the base, even in the furthest corner of the country. Ministers and priests went into the mountains to speak with the counterrevolutionaries to convince them to lay down their arms;* churches and Red Cross posts were opened as reception centers for those who accepted amnesty; there were marches** and prayer vigils for peace, meetings in the parishes to analyze what could be done, ways of the cross, fasts—a popular mobilization involving the whole community.
*In fact, Fr. Enrique Blandón and Adventist Minister Gustavo Adolfo Tiffer were kidnapped on their way to talk to one such group of contras. They remained in captivity and were threatened for 11 days. The intervention of Bishop Schlaefer finally brought about their release.
**One march in Nueva Guinea of 80 Catholics and Protestants from throughout the country that lasted a week was the most notable of these activities. Thousands of people from the towns and villages of the zone also accompanied them over part of the 82 kilometers of war zone that they covered. A participant in the march who lives in Managua described the experience: "We discovered that in Managua we have a peace that is paid for with the pain, the suffering, the poverty and the death of the peasants who live in the war zones."
This base-level movement inspired mistrust among the Catholic hierarchy of Managua. On September 19 a message from the bishops' conference, dated two days earlier and signed only by Bishop Bosco Vivas, was made public. It was out of tune with the peace accords, clashing with the climate of hope and optimism they had engendered. Its demands to the government went way beyond the accords: dialogue with the contras, an end to military service, total amnesty, etc. Ignoring the concept of "simultaneity" that is basic to the accords, it stated that the government "cannot honestly condition its own fulfillment of the accords on the actions of a third party," and made no recommendation for peace to this third party—the United States. The most jarring paragraph was one questioning the local peace commissions. "It appears that what is being sought is only the surrender and the disarming of isolated individuals," it said, in an attempt to invalidate this attempt at reconciliation, indeed at Christian forgiveness, for which so many priests and other Christians had been arduously working.
It soon became known that the document did not have the consensus of all the bishops. The document was rendered irrelevant both nationally and internationally by that information, the gap between the harshness of the text and the new climate in the country, and new measures taken by the government just as the document was released—the reopening of La Prensa and Radio Católica, an end to prior censorship of the media and a unilateral cease-fire decreed for three zones of the country. The government also contributed to the death throes of the "pastoral of confrontation" that has characterized the Managua archdiocese for years by avoiding any debate about the text signed by Bosco Vivas—one more sign of the new times.
Just a few days later, in response to the legitimate concern in the document that so many commissions could get out of control, the CNR stated in a communiqué that it would be at the head of all the regional or departmental commissions. It authorized both their creation and that of local commissions, however. The communiqué also recommended that the bishops of the dioceses head regional or departmental commissions. This has happened in Jinotega (Bishop Vílchez), Matagalpa (Bishop Santi) and Region I (Monsignor Julio López, vicar of the diocese, who is representing Bishop López Ardón, out of the country due to illness).
On November 5, 90 days after the signing of the accords and the date on which they became obligatory, President Ortega announced the latest measures taken by his government. Among them, it was decided that a cease-fire would be worked out with the counterrevolutionary leaders through an intermediary. Several days later Cardinal Obando was designated for this mission. The leadership role that the government has given to the archbishop of Managua in the post-Esquipulas stage has surprised many. "We consider this step to be a gesture of humility and of reconciliation," said President Ortega when asked about it by an international analyst.
If internationally the enemies of Sandinismo have had to eat crow in evaluating the fulfillment of the accords by the five Central American presidents, what has galled them most is the participation of the cardinal in the reconciliation process. La Prensa, a newspaper that is showing itself incapable of either constructive criticism or of the reconciliation it preaches, is among the most disconcerted. The cardinal's mediation role is perhaps the most palpable and symbolic proof of the Nicaraguan government's good will in the search for peace, at the same time that it apparently confirms the cardinal's own will to shift his way of acting when the counterrevolution has become nothing more than a discredited option on the verge of defeat. The evolution of the war explains a lot; the longing for peace explains practically everything. With an opposition that has always been weak and today appears more fragmented than ever, the cardinal is trying to recover the role of a man of peace with Esquipulas II, while also setting himself at the head of opposition to the Sandinista revolution. This is not insignificant for the future of the Church as an institution in Nicaragua.
The easing of tensions seems to be the wave of the future in Church-State relations. Among the people of God voices throughout Nicaragua are also crying for amnesty, pluralism and reconciliation inside the Church, so profoundly polarized during these years of war. Overcoming this polarization—one more of the wounds left by Reagan's war—is an important challenge for everyone at this hour of peace.
The daily practice of the peace commissions joins Protestants and Catholics, progressives and conservatives in the same task—one that implies risk, generosity and the ability to forgive. Not perhaps since the times of the literacy crusade has there been such a broad consensus in the Church as there is now in the war zones, and it is toward these peace commissions. It is an "evangelical insurrection" such as that launched by the fast for peace. The Church as the People of God who are building peace and are therefore blessed is being reconstituted. This also speaks to the formation of a new and broad social consensus around the desire for peace, which in the final analysis reinforces people’s participation—in other words, democracy.
It is only fitting, then, that at the altars just raised to celebrate the Immaculate Conception, known as the Purísima, the characteristic dove of peace of Esquipulas has a place of honor.