Penny Lernoux
Penny Lernoux

Fellowship Title:

New Hope in Latin America: The Church of the Catacombs

Penny Lernoux
May 2, 1977

Fellowship Year

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Among the martyrs in the early Latin American Catholic Church is a little known Nicaraguan bishop, Antonio Valdivieso, who was killed in 1550 by the son of the colonial governor in the city of Leon for refusing to sanction Indian slave labor. Like many such men in Central and South America, Valdivieso does not appear in Latin American history books because he belongs to the forgotten pages of colonial history, his story obscured by the popular saga of cross and sword. The historical image of the Catholic Church in Latin America is the Church of the conquistadores, of the Inquisition, of religious fanatics firing the temples of the great pre-Columbian civilizations. Yet there was another Church as well, the protector of the Indians, the refuge of the poor.

It is this Church that has risen again in Latin America.

After centuries of luxury and corruption, and of good works, too, the Catholic Church is harkening back to the lessons of men like Valdivieso, who proved that personal sacrifice is the most effective means of evangelization. As Chilean theologian Segundo Galilea writes, history has repeatedly shown that religious awakening is linked to persecution.

For all the hospitals, schools and leper colonies that the Church has sponsored in Latin America, the mass of the people failed to identify with the institution. That was because an essential ingredient was lacking, says Galilea — a “willingness to risk ostracism and persecution to demonstrate the Church’s solidarity with the people.” It is not by chance that the most venerated image in Latin American churches is Christ on the cross.

The change in the Latin American Church has been a long time coming — at least two decades — but it is all the more profound because it has been gradual, each step studied and debated. There have been, and still are, fringe groups on the right and the left, but they have not altered the ponderous, inevitable march of the majority towards their prophetic mission as the Church of the Catacombs. Not since the martyrs of the early colonial period have the people felt such a commitment by the Church, says Galilea. “The Church is with us,” agree the poor in the slums and rural villages of Latin America.

Some of the reasons for the change were external — widespread disappointment over the failure of capitalism and the Alliance for Progress to solve any of the continent’s pressing social problems and the simultaneous rise of right-wing military dictatorships in 11 countries. These events forced the Church to reread the parable of the Good Samaritan in a broader context. Good works no longer were enough. It was necessary to be a “witness of the truth,” to take a prophetic stand on behalf of the poor and oppressed. As the Apostles Peter and John said, “We cannot possibly give up speaking of things we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:20.)

There was also considerable soul searching by individual priests and nuns who questioned the values of the traditional religious life. “You can talk about the poor and their problems until you’re blue in the face,” said a U.S. nun in the slums of Managua. “But it is only when you live with them, and when you yourself are poor, that you begin to realize that the true power of the Church lies with these people.”

All across the hemisphere, from the Puerto Rican slums in New York, to the shanty towns of Buenos Aires, religious are saying the same thing. “To hell with the cathedrals and the palaces, government subsidies and protection,” said a Spanish Jesuit who works in a Brazilian slum. “We don’t want or need them.” Agrees Segundo Galilea, one of Latin America’s most respected theologians: the Church has nothing to lose by disassociating itself from repressive states. On the contrary, it has sparked a religious renaissance as the advocate of the voiceless in the military dictatorships.

Though the bishops would deny it, they have shown considerable political acumen in assuming this role. One of the reasons the Catholic Church has survived for nearly 2,000 years is that, consciously or not, it usually takes the long view of history (all things work slowly in that ancient bureaucratic machine). The military regimes that rule two-thirds of the Latin American people may believe that they will endure forever; the Church knows better. “In the long run, no government can succeed without some measure of popular support,” explains Galilea. By risking persecution and ostracism on behalf of the people, the Church is building up an enormous amount of goodwill for the future. It is a policy that Washington would do well to ponder.

The role of prophet has never been easy, and, while some of the national churches have been thrust into the spotlight by political events, as occurred in Chile, most have gone through a long and painful process to achieve such commitment. Typical of this ongoing calvary is the Nicaraguan Church which, after decades of subservience to the Somoza dictatorship, has now taken the lead in denouncing the 41-year-old dynasty, at considerable physical risk to bishops and priests. Managua’s Archbishop Miguel Obando Bravo, for example, has been threatened with a “car accident” of the sort that killed Argentina’s Bishop Enrique Angelelli (see PL-8), his house has been robbed by security agents, and his weekly radio program is censored. Local and foreign priests also have been threatened, harassed and/or expelled.

At U.S. Congressional hearings last June on human rights violations in Nicaragua, Jesuit Fernando Cardenal carried the burden of the accusations. (The other witnesses were U.S. citizens; Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, owner of the Nicaraguan daily “La Prensa” and a long-time foe of the Somoza regime, was prevented from attending the hearings by the Nicaraguan government.)

“The impact of the hearings on the people’s morale was tremendous,” said a Somoza critic. “We felt we were no longer alone, and for that we owe Father Cardenal an enormous debt.”

Cardenal has been roundly abused for his courage, including a nasty smear campaign in the government-controlled press which described the Jesuit as a “pervert” and “mental incompetent.” Cornelio Hueck, president of the Somoza-dominated Congress, threatened to try him for treason in Congress, and the National University of Nicaragua, where Cardenal teaches philosophy, was pressured to dismiss him from his job.

Cardenal was unable to answer any of these accusations because the media is censored under a 1974 state of siege decree. The priest’s telephone is tapped, his correspondence censored. If he is not in jail, that is only because Congressman Donald Fraser, chairman of the House Subcommittee on International Organizations, told the State Department that the U.S. Congress would hold the Somoza government responsible if anything happened to the priest.

Fernando’s brother, Ernesto Cardenal, the famous religious poet, also has been threatened with charges of treason for denouncing the Somoza government’s misuse of AID funds. After Father Cardenal attacked the government in a speech in Washington, D.C., last March, the Somoza newspaper “Novedades” ran a crude cartoon strip of the poet depicting him as a dirty hippy.

Some of the worst abuse has been directed at the 37 U.S. Capuchins working in Nicaragua, whom “Novedades” calls “castrated pigs” for having the temerity to denounce the massacre of 224 peasants by the Nicaraguan military in the northern rain forests.

The Capuchins could hardly be described as left-wing revolutionaries. On the contrary, they have repeatedly criticized the small guerrilla band operating in the north, and they shun any contact with Somoza’s political opposition. Most of their pastoral work has been concentrated in the northeastern department of Zelaya, a vast region of jungle and rain forest where the only means of communication is a decrepit DC-4 that hops between the dirt runways of the isolated villages.

Until recently, the U.S. priests kept a low profile in Zelaya, dedicating themselves to a program of rural chapels, schools and agricultural clubs. But like so many religious in the mainstream of the Latin American Church, the Capuchins eventually had to choose between the people and the state, between persecution and silence.

In early 1976, after “seeing so many of our friends killed,” the Capuchins issued a list of peasant families who had been massacred by the National Guard, which doubles as military and police. Capuchin Bishop Salvador Schlaefer and the bishops of Matagalpa and Esteli took the list to President Anastasio Somoza Debayle and demanded an investigation. When the government did nothing, Nicaragua’s seven bishops issued a strong protest letter denouncing “arbitrary detentions, torture, rape and executions without previous trial” in Zelaya and the neighboring departments of Matagalpa, Jinotega and Nueva Segovia.

The worst hit area is Zelaya, where the Nicaraguan military has wiped out whole districts on the pretext of their collaboration with the Sandinista Front of National Liberation (FSLN), a band of less than 50 guerrillas, most of them Managua university students. The peasants have no sympathy for these urban-educated guerrillas and “just want to be left alone,” as one peasant told me. Nevertheless, the National Guard is convinced that these poor people are a “bunch of no-good,, Communist subversives,” in the words of one of its commanders, this though the peasants have not the slightest idea what communism is, except that it is “something bad.”

“We are like the meat in the middle of a sandwich,” complained a bare-foot farmer, “If we don’t give the guerrillas food, they threaten to kill us. If we give them food, then the military kills us.”

Typical of the ongoing atrocities was the massacre of 44 men, women and children by the military in the Varilla district in Zelaya in January of this year after the local justice of the peace denounced the head of the Gonzalez family as a guerrilla collaborator. The two men had been at odds ever since Gonzalez accused the judge of pocketing a community collection to build a fence around the district chapel. Although there was no evidence to support the judge’s charge, the National Guard slaughtered the entire Gonzalez family, their married daughters and their families, including 29 children, burying the bodies in a common pit.

The lieutenant in charge of the slaughter continues to terrorize the region. He told one family that they would be the first on his assassination list because the father of the family refused the lieutenant’s demand to sleep with one of his daughters. The family hid the young girl, but now there is a price on their heads.

While “there is no justice in such terror,” as one Zelaya farmer said, there are good reasons for the repression. People fearful for their lives are not going to protest against smaller things like the lack of schools, roads and medical facilities or the slave wages paid by the large cattle ranchers. “It is enough to stay alive,” said an old peasant.

“There is no other explanation for the terror,” added a Catholic nun after describing the 24-hour detention of all the men in the Valley of Condega in the department of Esteli.

But without such basic community structures as schools, agricultural clubs and health centers, it is unlikely that the Nicaraguan peasant will ever be more than a beast of burden. (Fifty-five percent of the country’s 2.2 million population are peasants, with an annual per capita income of less than $120.)

“Teaching people to think is the worst crime you can commit under this government,” said a rural teacher whose school was recently closed by the National Guard,

Like the Cardenal brothers, the Capuchin priests have paid dearly for denouncing this situation. Father Evarist Bertrand was expelled in July, 1976, after protesting the imprisonment of a group of catechists. The National Guard was particularly annoyed by the Capuchin’s protest methods, which included sitting in a plaza in front of the jail and singing religious hymns all day. Despite the expulsion order, Bertrand slipped back over the Honduran-Nicaraguan border to visit his flock in an exploit worthy of a Graham Greene novel.

Cornelio Hueck, president of the Nicaraguan Congress, has threatened to try Father David Zywiec for treason. Father Agustin Sambola, the only native-born Capuchin in the order, has been prevented from leaving the country by the government, and Capuchin Superior Daniel Kabat has been hassled by the authorities. The Capuchins’ Managua telephone is tapped, their mail scrutinized. Yet, to the priests, none of this harassment can compare with the suffering of the people in Zelaya.

In addition to the massacres, there have been widespread arrests and torture of peasants, particularly Catholic lay leaders. One Zelaya “Delegate of the Word,” as these laymen are called, was left tied up for several days in the chapel, then beaten and tortured for three months with such “refinements” as the button torture, in which the person is forced to swallow a button attached to a string that is then tugged violently. Another form of torture is to suspend the prisoner by fingers and thumbs while he is beaten in the stomach or to force the prisoners to fight one another. These methods achieved the desired effects on the Delegate — the man no longer is a leader but a vegetable.

Zelaya’s chapels and community centers also have been violated by the military which last year used 26 chapels as barracks and torture centers and to rape the peasant women. The military war lords have banned the words “Christian community” as Communist propaganda and prevented the people from attending religious meetings.

Opposition politicians in the capital of Managua believe that it is Somoza’s strategy to wipe out the peasants in order to eliminate the guerrillas’ source of food. But there are also strong economic motives for this nasty war.

Zelaya’s peasant population has increased by 47 percent in the past decade, primarily because of migration from neighboring departments where the large cattle ranches gradually absorbed peasant holdings. The same process is being repeated in Zelaya. For example, the National Guard recently authorized the take over of lands south of the Dudu River by a large cattle rancher with adjacent holdings along the Matagalpa-Zelaya frontier. Of the original 100 peasant families that lived on these lands, only 18 are left, the rest having fled or “disappeared,” a euphemism for murder by the military.

According to Nicaragua’s bishops, the National Guard’s campaign in the north has contributed to “the increasing concentration of land and wealth at the expense of humble peasants who have been dispossessed of their fields.”

The process already is well advanced in Nicaragua with 1,800 ranches occupying 50 percent of the cultivated land, while 96,000 small farms are relegated to the remainder. Another 200,000 peasants are without land. The Somoza family alone owns 26 sq. mis., an area approximately the size of the country of El Salvador.

Terror and injustice have been a feature of Nicaraguan life ever since the thirties when the U.S. government handpicked Anastasio Somoza Garcia to head the National Guard. Somoza’s two sons have fulfilled the old man’s prophecy: “I’ll give this country peace if I have to kill every other man in Nicaragua to get it.” Some 25,000 people have died during the 41-year dynasty, many in periodic slaughters, such as the massacre of several hundred political opponents in Managua in 1967. So why should the Catholic Church suddenly be concerned about a few peasants?

The Capuchins maintain that the Church’s reversal of its pro-Somoza position has not been a precipitate decision, that change has taken place over several years, just as it has in most of the Latin American churches, and that this change is in response to the currents of reform at work throughout the universal Church.

Vatican II provided the momentum for this long, arduous process with its far-reaching reforms in favor of a more democratic Church in the early sixties. Then came Pope Paul’s famous 1967 encyclical “Populorum Progressio,” emphasizing equality and social justice, which was specifically directed at Latin America, the underdeveloped part of the Catholic world. This was followed by the Latin American bishops’ historic meeting in Medellin, Colombia, in 1968, when they denounced “institutionalized violence,” foreign imperialism and the enormous inequalities between rich and poor. And, finally, there was the rise of militarism in Latin America with its well-defined doctrine of totalitarianism that challenges the Church’s traditional supremacy in moral matters.

Of all the institutions in Latin America, including the CIA, the Church alone has a network of communications reaching into the smallest hamlet and village. And so the message of change — and hope — penetrated even the remote rain forests of Zelaya, where the only means of travel is by foot or horse.

In response to Vatican II, the Capuchins began experimenting with an idea that had been developed in neighboring Honduras — Christian communities and peasant lay leaders, or “Delegates of the Word.” Unlike Alliance for Progress community action programs which were dependent on the government for personnel and funds, and frequently were a cover up for counter-insurgency activities, the Zelaya Christian communities were local bootstrap operations which encouraged the people to elect representatives to be trained in Capuchin seminars as teachers, midwives, artisan agronomists and religious leaders. None of these people are experts in their fields. Many of the primary school teachers, for example, are themselves barely able to read and write. But because they form part of the community, and therefore have a stake in its progress, they are not about to abandon their jobs, as all the previous urban-educated teachers, agronomists and doctors did. So eager for knowledge are these people that they will hike for three and four days through the rain forests and mountains in order to attend a local seminar.

The Capuchins created a whole library of pamphlets, posters and books written in the language of the Zelaya peasants as teaching tools, all with the same message: love your neighbor, know your legal rights and be proud of your Indian peasant heritage.

They also sponsored a course for local justices of the peace, most of whom had not the faintest idea of the law. “Punishment should only be applied as a last resort, not as a vengeance, but as a means of correcting a situation and to avoid its repetition,” advised the Capuchins. “When a case presents itself, remember that it is possible, at the authority’s discretion, to substitute a punishment or a fine for a wise counsel.”

The Capuchins were able to carry out these programs in 65 different communities primarily because of their status as priests. Like most Latin American peasants, the first thing the Zelaya farmers wanted, even before a school, was a chapel where they could marry, baptize their children and receive Communion. While the peasants may not identify with the official Church, they have a deep sense of religiosity. (The most precious possession in a peasant hut is the Bible, and these people will save for years in order to buy one.)

With the U.S. priests’ support, the people constructed the cornerstone of Zelaya’s Christian communities, a chain of rustic chapels, each with a communal dining hall. The purpose of these halls is to encourage the people to pray, meet and eat together once a week. Although the Capuchins rarely visit these remote villages more than twice a year, the “Delegates of the Word” carry on their work with weekly prayer meetings and religious instruction. Unlike the missionaries of old who would appear once a year to baptize, confirm and marry the village en masse, the Capuchins insist that the people attend religion classes in order to understand the meaning of the sacraments, even though the peasant may have to walk for two days to reach the nearest chapel.

As a result of these meetings, Zelaya’s Christian communities soon spawned a whole series of other organizations, including teacher-parent associations in charge of the rural schools and agricultural clubs.

In the most advanced Christian communities, such as the district along the Prinzapolka River, these associations and clubs have served to unify the people against the National Guard and the large cattle ranchers. If any member is falsely accused by the military or the ranchers, the community unites behind him. Moreover, the people know their legal rights and are not afraid to talk back to the National Guard.

But in other areas where the communities did not have time to coalesce, they have been divided or destroyed by the murder, arrest and torture of families, particularly “Delegates of the Word.” All but 5 of the 30 agricultural extension clubs in the rural area around the town of Siuna have been closed by the National Guard on the grounds that they might be “subversive.” And many of Zelaya’s 186 rural schools are in trouble because the government has ordered the National Guard to assume their administration.

Despite these tremendous setbacks, the Capuchins refuse to give up. Seminars and community meetings continue, and now there is a program for the preparation of peasant priests. The Capuchins still ride the backlands of Zelaya, bringing comfort and hope to the farmers, prodding the lay leaders to get on with the formation of a youth club or school, pestering the local military commanders about the whereabouts of a missing peasant. In all this activity, there emerges a single, overriding mission — to be a “witness of the truth.” Despite the risks, and they are considerable in these wild rain forests, the Capuchins are demonstrating the Church’s solidarity with the people by speaking out against the murder and imprisonment of peasants. It is this sort of commitment that is revitalizing the Catholic Church in Latin America.

Theologians and bishops frequently talk about the need to “re-evangelize” the Latin American people, a tacit recognition that the Church failed to reach the masses, except in a superficial way, because it preferred alliances with the state and the rich elites. With few exceptions, those alliances no longer exist today, for the Church has gone back to the Conquest to resurrect the most important and noblest part of its history with such men as Bishop Valdivieso, protector of the Nicaraguan Indians. The Capuchins and thousands of religious like them are now writing the second chapter of this Church of the Poor.

Received in New York on May 2, 1977

©1977 Penny Lernoux

Penny Lernoux, freelance writer and Latin American correspondent for The Nation, is an Alicia Patterson Foundation award winner with support from the Rockefeller Foundation. Her subject is the theological, political, and sociological impact of the revolution in the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America. This article may be published with credit to The Nation, to Miss Lernoux as a Fellow of the Alicia Patterson Foundation, and to the Rockefeller Foundation. The views expressed by the author in this newsletter are not necessarily the views of either Foundation.