Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 372 | Julio 2012



The legacy of a brilliant generation of bishops

With the death of Cardinal Quezada Toruño, who was archbishop of Guatemala for years, a brilliant generation of Guatemalan bishops is starting to die out. Will the succeeding generation be up to their brilliant legacy? It’s a question that’s resounding around the Catholic Church of this Central American country.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

Rodolfo Quezada Toruño, archbishop emeritus of Guatemala and cardinal of the Catholic Church, died on June 4 at 80 years old. With him a brilliant generation of Guatemalan bishops is starting to die out.

In this generation names stand out, such as those of the Jesuit Luis Manresa (1915-2010), the Franciscan Constantino Luna (1910-1997), who was bishop of Zacapa, the diocesan Prospero Penados (1925-2005) first bishop of San Marcos then predecessor of Quezada Toruño as archbishop of Guatemala and founder of the Archdiocesan Human Rights Office (ODHAG) entrusted to the auxiliary bishop Juan Gerardi. Gerardi (1922-1998) was another distinguished member of this generation. First bishop of Alta Verapaz and then of El Quiché, a diocese he decided to leave with almost all its priests after three of them were killed. Gerardi himself was murdered on April 26, 1998, two days after he presented the famous and risky study “Guatemala, never again” on victims of the war. Also notable are Gerardo Flores, bishop emeritus of Alta Verapaz, born in 1925 and still living, Jorge Mario Ávila del Águila (1924-2008), the first bishop of the Petén and then Jalapa, and Víctor Hugo Martínez, bishop of Huehuetenango, who was born in 1930 and is still living. From that generation we still have as residential bishops Julio Cabrera, born in 1939, bishop of El Quiché (1986-2001) and now of Jalapa, and Álvaro Ramazzini, born in 1947, bishop of San Marcos (1988-2012) and now of Huehuetenango.

They matured with
the 1976 earthquake

This generation of bishops reached its maturity on the occasion of the February 4, 1976, earthquake. That disaster of enormous magnitude, which claimed some 25,000 lives, wounded nearly 80,000, made more than a million people homeless and literally swept away more than 15 mostly indigenous municipalities in the highlands, shook them to their core. I still remember with total clarity the day one of them approached our Jesuit community to ask for our help with an outline of a pastoral letter to comfort the people and to denounce the contradictions of Guatemalan reality, the root of ongoing and even greater disasters.

We had no idea how to compose such a document. We simply and honestly poured what we had seen and heard into the draft: that cemetery in Comalapa, turned into an unforgettable macabre dance of tombs; that town of San Martín Jilotepeque, where no houses were left standing except one concrete one on the corner of the central square; and the town of Tecpán, gutted by the earthquake like a beef carcass for sale. The people, already poor before the cataclysm, were now faced with misery. And the same old same old: the work of the State Emergency Committee and later the Reconstruction Committee, efficient with those who bowed down and subjected themselves to the demands of the government whose military President sprang from an electoral fraud.

1976: “United in Hope”

That bishop and others consulted not only us but many priests and other religious and lay people before writing their pastoral letter. Three or four months later we were surprised by the document “United in Hope,” dated July 25. The bishops hadn’t wanted to rush. On February 19 they had written a brief “Message in response to the national catastrophe.” The Cardinal Archbishop of Guatemala, Mario Casariego (1909-1983), who did not speak their same language, had called the earthquake “God’s punishment.”

For those who had realized that the vast majority of victims were poor, even the poorest, and lived in adobe houses with tile roofs, or in hovels in the capital’s ravines, God’s punishment was punishing the poor. Terrible blasphemy of a thoughtless prelate. In their letter, the bishops stated that the suffering produced by natural phenomena are “never revenge or punishment” from God, but an invitation “to reflection and the effort that impels us to be more human and more Christian.” For that reason they wrote that “the earthquake that struck Guatemala is like a symbol of other silent and invisible earthquakes that from time immemorial have been beating our people and whose authors have been and are we men.”

The letter was signed by all the bishops except Cardinal Casariego. Knowing his commitment to the army and the oligarchy, the bishops chose a moment when he was away in Rome to publish the letter.

An analytical look at reality

“United in hope” was a pastoral letter put together in line with the paradigm of the documents of the Latin American bishops who had met in Medellin in 1968: to see reality by analyzing it in depth, establishing the values from which to judge it and scheduling committed pastoral action, in this case with the country’s reconstruction. The pastoral letter raised hackles in the country and consecrated that generation of bishops.

The analytical look at Guatemalan established the “constant exploitation” and “unjust and inhumane life” of Guatemala’s people. It denounced the “advance of immorality,” the “immoderate desire for profit” and the “insatiable quest for pleasure” in the “upper classes.” It equally denounced the “logical consequence”: a “great hardening of conscience” and “regrettable insensitivity in the face of misery.” It also denounced the involvement of the middle classes in this same immorality, pointing out that it was a prisoner of the “consumer society.”

Honesty toward reality also led them to recognize that “the situation of misery” of the “working and peasant classes” prevented them from training for their trades and giving their all at work and led them to take “radical positions” or “evade responsibilities.” Echoing the documents of Medellín, the bishops spoke of a “situation of sin in the social, economic and political field,” “institutionalized violence,” “repression” and the “unfair” distribution of “a low gross national product.”

They didn’t stop at the issue of land tenure, “where the injustice experienced by our homeland appears with greater clarity and drama.” They noted “the intangibility of private property” and called the accumulation of “land in the hands of a few a sin of injustice that cries out to heaven.” They denounced “impunity, the existence of armed groups, corruption, manipulation of the institutions of justice and the use of torture”, as realities that made Guatemala live “for long years under the sign of fear and anguish.”

The bishops’ gaze extended to the reality of the Church, in need of constant conversion.” They described how the collapse of the old unity had not given way to “living a healthy and legitimate pluralism” and recognized “a very weak dialog between pastors, priests and the faithful.”

They stressed the dignity of the human person as an image and likeness of God. They confessed that “the most humble of the Guatemalan people, the most exploited and marginalized, the sickest and most ignorant are worth more than all the homeland’s riches and their life is sacred and intangible.” They stated firmly that the authorities “are not above the law.” They recognized the right of private property, without making it absolute, stating: “The expropriation of large tracts of poorly cultivated land or land reserved for speculation is completely legitimate”, because “the earth has been given to the whole world and not only to the rich.” And they defended the fact that the right of association to form organizations (unions, cooperatives, peasant leagues, political parties) cannot be restricted and that “no citizen may be harassed or marginalized, much less eliminated due to their race and color or their religious or political beliefs.”

A new bishop in times of repression

Of the 15 bishops who signed the letter in 1976, only 5 are still alive, all of them retired. Bishop Rodolfo Quezada Toruño was elected and consecrated in 1972, four years before the earthquake. For 9 of the 40 years left him to live the episcopal ministry, he served in Zacapa, Chiquimula, in the eastern part of the country, between 1972 and 1980. Between 1966 and 1970 that area had been the scene of the first guerrilla wave. General Arana, know as “the butcher of Zacapa” led the war there, accompanying it with brutal repression. They Later, Arana was elected President of the Republic (1970-74). To Rodolfo Quezada fell the task of reaping the harvest of blood and fire with which the army was cornering the guerrillas of the Sierra de las Minas, until forcing them to abandon the theater of war and take the path to Mexico and exile.

On June 30, 1978, Army Day, his parish priest, Hermógenes López, was murdered in the village of San José Pinula. López had spoken out publicly against the company that wanted to pipe water from the municipality to sell in the capital, against the rise in the price of milk that several large farmers had imposed and especially against the brutal raids that were press-ganging young poor peasants into military service. A month earlier, on May 29, the army had carried out a massacre in the park in Panzós, firing on a crowd of indigenous peasants demanding land, killing 53 of them and wounding 47 according to what the Commission for Historical Clarification documented years later.

Bishop Quezada was among Guatemala’s Episcopal Conference delegates to the Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM) held in Puebla, Mexico, in January 1979, following the one in Medellin. One afternoon I spoke with him about the danger that the faction led by Colombian Archbishop Alfonso López Trujillo, the CELAM secretary, would seek to propose texts that might link liberation theology with Marxism. Quezada gave me the impression he was clear that liberation theology had to be protected from conviction for alleged dependence on Marxism and also knew that he had to keep his distance from fanaticism.

“What did you do to your brother?”

On May 15, 1980, the bishops of the Episcopal Conference of Guatemala issued a statement on the occasion of the Vatican’s beatification of Brother Pedro Betancur, the famous secular mendicant of Antigua.

The main section of the text was devoted to an analysis of the violence, since in Guatemala “rarely had they lived through such bitter days: abductions, torture and murder, gangs of hired killers moving and operating throughout the Republic.” The Bishops also claimed that “the Catholic Church has been suffering this now long and painful passion with the people.” And they spoke of “numerous murdered catechists and delegates of the Word”, and others who had had to flee to avoid a similar fate. They reminded everyone that the second anniversary “of the immolation of Father Hermógenes López” would soon be commemorated. And they denounced the murder of Friar Walter Voordeckers, a Belgian missionary, in the town center of Santa Lucía Cotzumalguapa and the kidnapping and disappearance of another missionary priest, the Filipino Conrado de la Cruz, from the same congregation. Faced with total impunity, the bishops cried out: “The voice of God resounds in our homeland and shouts: “Cain, what did you do to your brother Abel?”

Throughout 1980 the bishops stood up again and again with their courageous voices: February 15, March 25, May 7, May 15, June 13 and July 24. Between January 13 and November 14 of 1981 they spoke out six times; between January 30 and November 22 of 1982 six times; and in the 20 months between February 22, 1983, and September 3, 1984, twelve times. They were the harshest five years of the internal armed conflict, the most brutal due to the massacres, the scorched-earth policy and the continued killings, forced disappearances and torture. The Guatemalan bishops wanted to be close to the pain, outrage, rebellion and passion that the people experienced with great dignity and sought to unearth from the silence, breaking the censorship and steadfastly protesting.

1980: “Deep crisis in humanism”

On June 13, 1980, they published a document they called “Deep crisis in humanism.” In this text the bishops of Guatemala were the first in Latin America to collectively refer to the murdered priests as “martyrs of Christ for preaching the Gospel.” The bishops of El Salvador did not do the same when, on March 24 that same year, Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated following the murder of 14 of his priests.

In that document, the bishops defended the murdered priests from the “insidious slander intended to obscure their clear Christian witness,” slander that accused them of “being vehicles of atheistic communism.” They continued pressing the issue on July 8, 1981, by denouncing the murder of another three priests: Juan Alonso, Carlos Gálvez and the Franciscan Tulio Maruzzo, “added to the murder of six other priests and numerous catechists in recent years.” And they said: “The murders suggest the existence of a carefully considered plan to intimidate and silence the Church and its prophetic voice.”

This generation’s bishops were never naive and claimed in this document that “not a few Christians in Guatemala are beginning to get used to hearing about these events with indifference and let themselves be deceived when there is an attempt to tarnish the nature of these martyrs’ deaths,” deaths of those who dedicated “their lives to working in the poorest and most abandoned places in the interior of the country in very difficult conditions.” They considered that “some people think the Church in Guatemala is the most tormented in Latin America during its entire history.”

1985: “The truth will set you free”

The way back to democracy began to take shape as the war started to drag on in Guatemala despite the military defeat of the second guerrilla force, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union (URNG), which was cornered but not annihilated and didn’t lose its political influence. In 1984, the de facto President, General Oscar Humberto Mejía Victores, convened elections for a Constituent Assembly, which that same year drafted and passed the Constitution still in force today. At the end of 1985 general elections ushered in the first government with a civilian President in 20 years. Except for one effort to interrupt constitutional processes in 1993, the electoral liturgy has held its rituals for 22 years. And in December 1996, during one of those governments elected without fraud, a peace agreement was signed between the State and the URNG.

The country’s crucial issues were in the pens of this generation of bishops and they were not just issues of an exclusively ecclesiastic agenda. In 1985 they wrote the document “The truth will set you free” to guide people in the elections. They strongly defended the argument that the “democratic opening is not a gift, but recognition by the government of a right long-denied the Guatemalan people.”

1988: “The clamor for land”

In 1988 they wrote “The clamor for Land.” They used incontrovertible data from the third National Farming Census: 2.25% of the Guatemalan population controlled 64.49% of the land, while 89.56% of the population had to make do with 16.53%. Speculation, hoarding, dispossession and land invasions were mentioned in the text.

This letter was one of the bishops’ documents most commented on by the media, opposed by those who felt singled out and received with joy by the vast majority of the population. Rejection of the Church by privileged sectors opened spaces for interesting technical and economic debate. The pastoral letter was translated into several languages and illustrated editions of it were made.

1992: “500 years of sowing the Gospel”

In 1992 the bishops published another famous pastoral letter: “500 Years of sowing the Gospel.” It was a self-critical text in which the Episcopal Conference asked forgiveness “for the limits and shadows, errors and sins that took place” with the conquest of America and that “first evangelizing.” They were gladdened “by the blossoming of Maya spirituality, with its various manifestations, which becomes a critical entity of society, of existing structures, of cultures, of the modes of coexistence and also of religious life.”

The capacity for prudently bold risk—a worthy paradox—showed them giving voice to different sectors of the indigenous peoples of Guatemala. An example: “Since the arrival of the first Christian Europeans, we have been burdened with their point of view and condemnation. The Catholic Church committed huge errors and sins. Very often Christianization of the indigenous Mayan people was carried out by the missionary in communion with the force of the Spanish army. The Church identified with the power of the State. Christianization was confused with Westernization. To be a Christian it was necessary to renounce indigenous identity, one’s own way of believing and religious forms of their faith. In this regard, the European Church established on Mayan soil contributed to ethnocide by condemning indigenous peoples’ religious forms, theologies, liturgies and organizations.”

This letter became a foreshadowing of what four years later the Peace Accords would call the pluri-ethnic, multilingual and pluri-cultural character of Guatemala. And it would have a significant impact on confronting the customary racism of many of the country’s groups and social classes.

In 1986 Central America began to move toward peace at the Summit of Central American Presidents in Esquipulas II, which recommended among other measures, the creation of Reconciliation Commissions. The first elected civilian President after 1985, Vinicio Cerezo, faced it early on and chose the then-bishop of Zacapa, Rodolfo Quezada, as its president and his colleague Juan Gerardi as his deputy.

From then until his death, Quezada put his powerful intelligence and knowledge of law in the service of attaining peace. He worked dauntlessly during the Cerezo, Serrano and part of De León Carpio presidencies without things essentially progressing. His brother bishops told him to leave that position where the work seemed sterile and continue working at other levels. So, from his small office in the House of Reconciliation Foundation in the capital, he convened the Civil Society Assembly with other forces and from there continued to struggle for peace and reconciliation, encouraging the formulation of plans for submission to the negotiating commissions of the Peace Accords.

1995: “An urgent need for true peace”

In this context of the struggle for peace the bishops published the third of their great pastoral letters in 1995: “An urgent need for true peace.”

As they had said before in eight previous documents, they maintained that peace is the fruit of justice. For this reason they argued that “in our country we do not enjoy peace, because there has never been nor is there justice. Our whole history is marked by a large number of events, the expression of so many other injustices.” They went back to another letter from 1962, in which they had spoken of the “untenable situation in Guatemala that was condemning large sectors to poverty, due to the poor distribution of material wealth, especially land.” They also referred to their letter, “The clamor for land,” where they wrote that “in so many years of history, appropriate land reform that could legitimately reverse this dynamic of injustice was never possible.”

They didn’t shrink from handling the hot potato of “fiscal contribution.” It is well known that promoting real tax reform in Guatemala not only raises a strong wall of rejection in the private sector but can go as far as triggering a coup d’état. Yet the bishops spoke of a progressive “tax table” that would “do away with hurtful and unbearable inequality.”

They also wrote about the situation of women: “Socioeconomic reality places them among the poorest and most affected in our country and those upon whom the effects of poverty and the economic crisis fall most drastically… Discrimination against women is a serious obstacle to human and social development in Guatemala and its own postponement only reinforces the vicious circle of poverty and underdevelopment.” To indigenous and peasant women “their possibilities are reduced even further and the weight of poverty batters them when they are more helpless.”

Rodolfo Quezada,
archbishop of Guatemala

In 2001, after accepting his predecessor’s resignation, the Vatican transferred Rodolfo Quezada from the bishopric of Zacapa to the archbishopric of Guatemala. During the nine years of his archbishopric he maintained an important national presence, distinguishing himself by denouncing opencast mining and through his support for the bishop of San Marcos, Alvaro Ramazzini, in his fight against the US-Canadian Montana Company. Mining exploitation was leaving behind it lunar landscapes, rivers polluted by mercury and arsenic and murders of militant members of grassroots organizations opposed to extraction.

Will they pass on this legacy?

Will this generation of bishops enjoy continuity? Guatemala today continues to be a country tortured by unjust poverty and incredible inequality in the distribution of wealth. The causes of the war are still present in the institutional structures of the country. Land dispossession and land concessions to both mining companies and hydroelectric dam companies are creating situations of acute conflict and have now claimed more than a few murders in San Miguel Ixtahuacan, Santa Cruz Barillas, Santa Cruz del Quiché and other places around the country.

The lands usurped by military figures in Alta Verapaz and the Petén have not been returned to the State as required under the Peace Accords and, as a result, have not been used to distribute land to the peasants. The attempts at fiscal reform came to nothing time and time again, as evidenced by the pathetic account of Albert Fuentes Knight in his book “Accountability.” After the peace, no government has tackled the design of a rural development plan that might be worthy of the name. Instead of being expropriated constitutionally as a social utility in response to the massive housing problem of ravine settlements, uncultivated urban land is given over to malls and luxury residential estates. The Peace Secretariat denies common people access to the Peace Archives and the army’s strategic plans, which had been opened to the public.

As the bishops already said years ago, sustaining all this works against reconciliation because it hasn’t “removed the causes of the conflict.” Their continuation and the new factor of organized crime fan the fire of new forms of violence. Wouldn’t all this require a new pastoral letter from the bishops, so they might take up the legacy of their best earlier letters? Does the current membership of the Bishop’s Conference lead us to expect such an important decision?

When will there be
merindian bishops?

Nor do we know if the Bishops’ Conference has already taken the step of selecting from within the numerous Amerindian clergy some candidates for the episcopate, a crucial decision.

For as long as people of God as pluri-ethnic, multilingual and pluri-cultural as those of Guatemala don’t come to be governed and led in some of their dioceses by Amerindian members of the national clergy, there’s a shortfall considering the legacy of pastoral directives to the successors of those who wrote them. In the current members of the episcopate, the apostolic nuncio, the Roman Congregations and the pope will there be the courageous willingness to break with more than 500 years of native-born Spanish and mestizo bishops? In their time Rodolfo Quezada, Julio Cabrera and Alvaro Ramazzini were rectors of the Inter-Diocesan Seminary of Guatemala and they realized it, not only because of the large and progressive increase of diocesan clergy, but also because of the increasing percentage of seminarians from Mayan ethnic groups.

“I see so many injustices…”

In his farewell letter on leaving his service as archbishop, Quezada wrote: “During the time of my pastoral ministry there has been no shortage of suffering. But possibly the greatest suffering is that of having seen how each day the traces deepen of a secular injustice and marginalization that lead to so many situations of poverty to which most of the faithful of our archdiocese are subjected. The thousands of people who live crowded into the ravines of our city come to mind, the indigenous inhabitants of all the ethnic groups who come to the metropolitan city looking for a future not to be found in their own places, migrants, peasants, the elderly, children abandoned to their fate, young people who have no family support, women who must sustain a home alone without the company of a husband ... There are so many situations where the profound injustice in which our homeland lives manifests itself...”

Between that brilliant generation of bishops and the one succeeding them a challenge is opened up so that “the struggle for faith and the struggle for justice demanded by this faith” will continue to be the Guatemalan bishops’ privileged task.

Juan Hernández Pico, sj, is envío correspondent in Guatemala.

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