Nicaragua: There is no way out of the current crisis without the involvement of the church

Nicaragua: There is no way out of the current crisis without the involvement of the church

Marco Mencaglia, head of the Latin America section of Aid to the Church in Need, visited Nicaragua in November. The objective of his trip was to learn more about conditions in the country first-hand and to assess how the pontifical foundation has worked with the local church up until this point and how they can continue to work together.

 Last year, Nicaragua experienced a series of intensive and violent clashes between the government and opposition groups that lasted for about three months from 18 April to mid-July. During this period, the clashes claimed hundreds of lives – most of them young protesters. However, the exact number of victims is disputed: the government has estimated 150 dead, other sources say the figure is over 500.

 The Catholic Church played a decisive role in ensuring that the clashes between the armed government forces and the protesters – most of them students – did not cause even more casualties, both dead and wounded.

 “One of the things that the Nicaraguan Church has said time and again is that the only way out of the crisis is through dialogue and by supporting a process that guarantees legal certainty, and channels the energy of young people for the good of the country. It is important to avoid starting new conflicts and to involve all of the relevant social actors in the country,” Mencaglia said in an interview after he returned from his visit to the Central American country. “I would even go so far as to say that there is no peaceful way out of the current situation without the involvement of the Church. At a spiritual and social level, the Church continues to play a decisive and unique role in Nicaragua as it moves along the difficult path to healing the deep wounds left by the conflict that raged from April to July.”

 Mencaglia also addressed the difficult situation that young Catholics face. He was often told during his visit, “Young and Catholic is a dangerous thing to be in Nicaragua today.”

 The following is a transcript of the interview:

 What is the current situation in Nicaragua?

Although officially, there have not been any further violent clashes since July, the political climate in the country remains extremely tense. At this time, the fate of the young people has yet to be decided. Hundreds of them are still incarcerated in prison for political reasons relating to the suppression of the protests. Less blatant forms of discrimination also have a negative impact on life in the country.

Marco Mencaglia, head of the Latin America section of Aid to the Church in Need, visited Nicaragua in November.

Marco Mencaglia, head of the Latin America section of Aid to the Church in Need, visited Nicaragua in November.

What role did the Catholic Church play during this time?

Many people deplore the absence of the basic requirements for democracy. The Catholic Church is playing a decisive role in finding a peaceful solution for the conflict because it is an institution that is deeply rooted in society.

After the first protests, the government asked the Church to play a mediating role. However, the dialogue was aborted by the government after eight meetings. A fierce campaign was initiated by government circles to discredit the Catholic Church. Strong allegations were made against Church leaders and the Catholics were called “putschists” and “terrorists”. At the same time, measures were taken to keep tabs on everything the priests said and did. Thus, for example, the content of Sunday sermons is monitored closely and passed on to the government by agents. In addition, it is said that concrete and in part violent measures are being taken at a local level to discriminate against persons who are suspected of having provided some form of material support for the protests, even if they were not directly involved in the clashes. Over the course of our visit, one sentence came up again and again: “Young and Catholic is a dangerous thing to be in Nicaragua today.”

What impressed you most during your trip?

The courage of the Church as it worked to prevent even more violence during the months of conflict. The protest organisers closed off the main roads in many regions of the country, bringing life to a standstill in the country for weeks. We saw many photos showing priests in, particularly tense situations, standing with arms raised between armed government forces who were about to take down blockades by force, and protesters who had resolved to show resistance. By risking their own lives, these priests, most of them young men, saved the lives of many young people on both sides of the conflict. They prevented the street blockades from ending in violence. Many of the churches took in hundreds of wounded, converting church buildings into makeshift field hospitals.

In spite of the campaign to discredit the Church, recent, independent surveys have shown that the Church as an institution continues to enjoy a very high level of credibility. The number of vocations to the priesthood continues to rise practically everywhere in the country. Each year, new parishes are founded in different dioceses. Others are adding to the number of centres for lay education. The number of applications received from people interested in taking part in educational courses offered by the Church is also growing. The last diocese to be founded in Central America is located in Nicaragua: the diocese of Siuna, established in late 2017.

Mgr Jorge Solórzano Pérez, Bishop of Granada, during the distribution of a meal for the poor of the city - Poor man wearing a T-Shirt with the slogan "Nicaragua loves Jesus".

Mgr Jorge Solórzano Pérez, Bishop of Granada, during the distribution of a meal for the poor of the city – Poor man wearing a T-Shirt with the slogan “Nicaragua loves Jesus”.

Is there a way out of the crisis?

The Nicaraguan Church has said time and again that the only way out of the crisis is through dialogue and by supporting a process that ensures that the fundamental rules of democracy – free and fair elections – are respected, and that channels the energy of young people for the good of the country. It is important to avoid starting new conflicts and to involve all of the relevant social actors in the country. I would even go so far as to say that there is no peaceful way out of the current situation without the involvement of the Church. At a spiritual and social level, the Church continues to play a decisive and unique role in Nicaragua as it moves along the difficult path to healing the deep wounds left by the conflict that raged from April to July.

What does the Nicaraguan Church need?

First of all, the local Church has to remain unified. In spite of the great differences in personal biographies, attitudes and pastoral contexts, the bishops have always been able to show a remarkable solidarity with one another. It is necessary to pray for the people who have distanced themselves from the Church for political reasons, that they may return to the community of the Church. These are difficult processes that quietly continue to move forward in spite of the many problems. During these precarious times, the Nicaraguan Church needs to feel the solidarity of the world Church in prayer and its ongoing attention.

Chapel in Nicaragua.

Chapel in Nicaragua.

What help can ACN provide through the involvement of its benefactors?

In response to the remarkable increase in vocations, beginning in 2019 the Church in Nicaragua has decided to set up new philosophical seminaries for candidates to the priesthood at a regional level. These will be in addition to the existing diocesan seminaries in Managua and Granada as well as the national seminary in Managua, where students from the five other state districts can continue their theological studies. The new, improvised seminaries will need worthy facilities to be able to accommodate the young students.

Furthermore, ACN is assisting in the process of founding new parishes in various dioceses of the country by building small churches and parish houses. These are being built in isolated areas and the communities are happy to finally have a priest living among them. Quite often we have witnessed how the presence of a priest can change the life in a village in Nicaragua: in addition to his liturgical and sacramental duties, the priest is often a point of orientation in the day-to-day life of the entire community.

ACN also offers support for the formation of young lay people. As we mentioned above, during the protests young Catholics became the targets of the most severe attacks. They were robbed of their rights, threatened, thrown into prison and beaten. Many of them fled the country to seek refuge abroad. Many others lost their jobs because of the economic crisis and have no prospects for the future. We have to reach out to these young people so that their wounds can heal and they can discover the love of God in spite of all their suffering and anger.

Brazil: A funeral home for the poor

The month of November is devoted in particular to prayers for the deceased. What was supposed to be a work of mercy in the Amazonas region of Brazil became nothing more than a means of exploitation before the church took the initiative. Aid to the Church in Need helped achieve this transformation.

The diocese of Juína is located in the state of Mato Grosso in the central part of western Brazil, an area that is part of the Amazonas region. In this region, a young mother and her small daughter died in an automobile accident. The young woman was survived by a widower and two children. After the diocese of Juína became aware of the family’s situation, it founded a community funeral home called AME (Associação Ministério de Esperança), which rendered its first service for this family. Its staff of volunteers may not have had any professional training, but they were more than willing to help the family. Some of the team comforted and supported the widower. Others made arrangements for the coffins. No structures were in place, which made the task quite difficult. However, the entire process was fuelled by sympathy. Since the family did not have enough money, AME paid for the funeral expenses. The widower was a devout man who later joined the team as a volunteer.

Before AME was founded, there was only one funeral home in Juína and it charged exorbitant prices for its services. As witnessed by people who are close to the families as well as by Bishop Neri José Tondello of Juína, “people lost all their worldly goods, even their land, when they had to bury their family members. This was exacerbated by poor manners and a lack of professionalism.”

The first bishop of the diocese, Franco Dalla Valle, had the idea of founding a new funeral home. He understood that measures needed to be taken to help the people, not only during their lifetimes, but also in the hour of their death. And so he decided to found a community funeral home. The funeral expenses were not only supposed to be kept as low as possible through the work of volunteers, but family members were to be treated humanely and those who were mourning their dead were to be offered the solace of Christian hope.

However, the hour of his own death came while he was still developing the project: Bishop Franco passed away on 2 August 2007 before his dream could be realised. However, his project did not die with him thanks to the willingness of volunteers. When Bishop Neri José took over the diocese of Juína, one of his main goals was to continue the projects initiated by his predecessor. With the support of Aid to the Church in Need, the funeral home was one of the first projects to be realised. And so AME was founded.

At the beginning, volunteers divided up the tasks that needed to be done amongst themselves. The association took care of poor families, the destitute, indigenous communities, etc. with brotherly love and consideration. Word gradually began to spread about the excellent work of AME – not only in Junía, but also in the neighbouring cities, which began to use the services of the funeral home as well. Even people who would have had sufficient funds decided to use AME because of the emphasis placed by the association on human dignity.

Those who had been enriching themselves for years on the pain of others far beyond that which could be considered fair reacted with great displeasure. At the beginning, things were anything but simple. Some of the volunteers were harassed. However, they never stopped believing in the project.

AME was not only founded for professional reasons. Rather, it was motivated by the desire to bring peace and the hope of resurrection to those keeping vigil by a friend or family member. The premises of the funeral home consist of one room in which mourners can stay overnight, a common room for family members and a dining room. Even the basic funeral equipment can be used free of charge. Bishop Franco’s idea was so successful that it has been adopted by other cities such as Aripuanã and Colniza.

The Asociación Ministerio de Esperanza is a work of mercy. The benefactors of ACN played an important role in its foundation by funding the restoration of the building in which AME is located. ACN also bought a van to transport the coffins. The work of many people has made it possible to replace what was once exploitation with the hope and receptivity of those who volunteer their time to carry out this work with dedication and brotherly love.

ACN continues to support the diocese of Juína in Brazil, particularly in the areas of youth work and the pastoral care of the indigenous population. Nine different ethnic groups live in Juína, spread across 150 small villages.


Worldwide: Ignoring the worsening persecution

The persecution of Christians is worse than at any time in history – but it is being largely ignored by the UN and the international community, according to reports.

The new Persecuted and Forgotten? report, launched at a meeting in the Houses of Parliament on October 12, 2017, concludes that the persecution of Christians reached a high water mark in 2015-17 – with growing attacks on the faithful by Daesh (ISIS), Boko Haram, and other fundamentalist groups. According to the report produced by the Aid to the Church in Need UK office, the international community has failed to adequately respond to the needs of Christians attacked by militant extremists.

Persecuted and Forgotten? states: “Governments in the West and the UN failed to offer Christians in countries such as Iraq and Syria the emergency help they needed as genocide got underway. If Christian organisations and other institutions had not filled the gap, the Christian presence could already have disappeared in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East.”

The report also identified growing problems in certain majority Islamic countries and authoritarian states such as Eritrea and North Korea. Report editor John Pontifex said: “In terms of the numbers of people involved, the gravity of the crimes committed and their impact, it is clear that the persecution of Christians is today worse than at any time in history. Not only are Christians more persecuted than any other faith group, but ever-increasing numbers are experiencing the very worst forms of persecution.”

Although the report found in the countries under examination that many faith communities have suffered at the hands of extremists and authoritarian regimes, it concluded Christians have experienced the most hostility and violence. The report supports this claim with a series of examples showing the extent of the problems facing Christians in each of the 13 core countries it assesses in depth – as well as providing an overview of the state of religious freedom for the country’s various denominations.

Persecuted and Forgotten? found that members of China’s 127 million-strong Christian population have suffered increased persecution following new attempts to bring Christianity in line with Communist ideals. More than 2,000 churches and crosses have been pulled down in China’s coastal Province of Zhejiang – and clergy are still being routinely detained by authorities. During the campaign of genocide by Daesh and other Islamist militant groups in the Middle East, Christians were disproportionately affected by the extremists.

In Iraq, more than half of the country’s Christian population became internal refugees and Syria’s second city of Aleppo, which until 2011 was home to the largest Christian community, saw numbers dropping from 150,000 to barely 35,000 by spring 2017 – a fall of more than 75 percent.  Despite national governments and international organisations having determined that a genocide has taken place, local Church leaders in the Middle East have repeatedly said that they feel forgotten by the international community. A number of bishops in the region have accused the UN of overlooking the needs of displaced Christians, despite pledging to deliver aid “neutrally and impartially”.

Extremism has been a growing problem in Africa – particularly in Nigeria where Daesh affiliates Boko Haram have displaced more than 1.8 million. In one diocese alone – Kafanchan – within five years, 988 people had been killed, and 71 Christian-majority villages had been destroyed, as well as 2,712 homes and 20 churches. At the launch in the House of Lords, chaired by Lord Alton, Archbishop John Darwish – who has overseen the care of Syrian Christian refugees denied UN aid – gave a first-hand report about the crisis that has faced Christians and ACN’s John Pontifex presented the findings of Persecuted and Forgotten?

Bishop Matthew Kukah from northern Nigeria spoke about Christians living with violence from Boko Haram and other extremist militants. Work resettling displaced Christians in the towns and villages they were driven out of by Daesh in northern Iraq was described by Father Salar Kajo, who helps oversee the programme returning displaced families to their homes on the Nineveh Plains.


El Salvador: Paying tribute to the Martyrs

Aid to the Church in Need is collaborating on a project to look back on and reappraise the history of the lay martyrs from El Salvador

“When someone sacrificed his life for something, then it is worth asking why he did so.” Franciscan Father Tomás Ciaran O’Nuanain, an Irish missionary in El Salvador, categorically explains the significance of the research project the Office of Lay Martyrs is working on. The objective is to pay tribute to the witnesses who were murdered during the bloody Salvadoran Civil War. It is also an instrument for the church to examine the recognition of the victims as martyrs.

The smallest country in Latin America has an extensive catalogue of martyrs. Foremost is the blessed Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero, who was murdered in 1980 while celebrating Holy Mass and who was recently made the patron saint of the World Youth Day taking place in Panama in 2019. The witness he bore for justice has left its mark in history. Pope Francis pointed this out during his beatification on May 23rd, 2015. “Bishop Romero paid particular attention to the most poor and marginalised. He knew how to lead, defend and protect his flock, remaining faithful to the Gospel and in communion with the whole Church.”

The civil war in El Salvador, as well as the preceding and subsequent conflicts, made the period from 1980 to 1992 one of the bloodiest in Central America. During these years, social injustice and oppression were rampant in the country; labour unions were banned. “It was dangerous to support the farmers,” Father Tomás Ciaran O’Nuanain recalled.

According to the Irish missionary, “the clergy was completely divided. It was very sad because many politicised the Gospel. A strong minority supported Bishop Romero and his fight for the rights of farmers. A further strong minority was against this. The others did not take a clear stance. But all of us who fought for the dignity of the most needy were threatened and persecuted.” Father Tomás said. He is coordinating the research project entitled “Witnesses of the Gospel” with five books having been published so far. Nine further publications are planned, one per “departamento” (province) of the country. “With our efforts to look back on and reappraise the past, we would like to pay tribute to and honour the martyrs,” the 73-year-old Franciscan empathically said. He recollected the Christians who fought for justice and bore witness for their faith throughout the various eras.

As part of the research project of the Office of Lay Martyrs, information about the lay martyrs is compiled through interviews and archives, their stories are examined and written down so that they do not pass into oblivion. More than 800 testimonies of the relatives or friends of those murdered have been compiled, one example being the story of Noé Arsenio Portillo López. The 22-year-old catechist was kidnapped as he left Mass together with his mother. He was tortured for three days. “The various extremities were severed from his body one after the other before he finally was decapitated,” it is written in one chapter of Witnesses of the Gospel.

In a pastoral letter, Archbishop Jose Luis Escobar of San Salvador, chairman of the Bishops’ Conference, expressed his thanks for the efforts of Father Tomás O’Nuanain and the research team, and for his service to the church, “You as well should bear witness because you have been with me from the very beginning.”

Aid to the Church in Need has been one of the supporters of this project to look back on and reappraise history, granting €20,000 towards the mission. Marco Mencaglia, ACN’s project manager for El Salvador, explained this further by saying that the charity “helps to look back on and reappraise history, far away from all resentment. We would like to promote a real peace. We would like to stand with the church of El Salvador and show that the simple and silent act of bearing witness of these thousands of believers continues to be much stronger and more impressive than the terrible violence they suffered.”


Love One Another

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for one who loves another has fulfilled the law.

The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”

Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.


Romans 13: 8-10

Second Reading Sunday 10 September, 2017

Colombia: At the Crossroads

In the words of the Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Ettore Balestrero peace, reconciliation and social justice will be important themes during the Holy Father’s visit to Colombia. “It is the beginning of a new chapter in the history of Colombia. Everything is open. The Colombians will be the authors of this new chapter. They will write it with the decisions they take.”

In an interview with Aid to the Church in Need  the Apostolic Nuncio asked for a prayer to be said: “I want to encourage you to ask God for the Holy Father’s enlightenment. Pray for the Pope to open the hearts of all the people so that the Lord will find them ready to receive his message and to renew their lives after the visit.

Talking to ACN, the Apostolic Nuncio in Colombia described the imminent visit of Pope Francis to this Latin American country as the “visit of a friend”. Archbishop Ettore Balestrero emphasized that the Pope “like all friends of the Colombians will ask some searching questions: What are you doing with your life? Are you really happy? What is the meaning of what you do?”  Regarding earlier Papal trips to Colombia he said: “The journey made by John Paul II 31 years ago was the visit of a father. The journey of Paul VI in 1968 was somewhat like the visit of a teacher from afar. These were among the very first Papal journeys. The journey of Pope Francis from 6 to 10 September is taking the form of a visit by a friend – a friend who is, of course, a father and a teacher, but first and foremost a friend. Since he is from Latin America himself, he knows Colombia. He understands the Colombian way.”

The towns Francis will visit include not only the internationally famous ones – Bogotá, Medellín and Cartagena – but also Villavicencio on the eastern plain. No Pope has ever been there. The town is located in an area which was the scene of many armed conflicts between FARC guerrillas and paramilitary units. In view of the peace process currently underway in the country, the Archbishop stressed the significance of the Papal visit at a historically crucial time: “Although a number of legal and social aspects still have to be definitively dealt with, Colombia is in the process of closing a chapter of its history. At the same time a new chapter is beginning in which everything is open. The Colombians will themselves be the authors of this new chapter. They will write it with the decisions they take. Colombia can adopt the positive sides of western culture and modern societies. But it can also fall prey to the contradictions and weaknesses of these societies.” In the words of Archbishop Balestreros, the Holy Father is coming as a “pilgrim of faith, hope and reconciliation to a country which is passing through a transitional stage in many respects, and not only on account of the peace process”. It’s of crucial importance “to rebuild a reconciled country where the citizens love and respect one another, and where they show respect of God and other people.”

In the interview the Archbishop described the Colombian people as “very warm, enterprising and diligent”. He also talked about the major social rift in Colombia. “There are people starving while others throw away food.” In this context he talked about the contrasts between highly developed cities – such as Bogotá, Medellín, Cali and Barranquilla – and other regions in the country where people live who own practically nothing. “The Holy Father,” the Archbishop explained, “is the father of the rich and the poor. But he is coming here to remind us that Colombia needs the contribution of all. In his language and what he proclaims the Pope plays special emphasis on those who suffer. We cannot live under the same heaven and fail to recognise the other reality as through it didn’t exist.” With this in mind the Apostolic Nuncio used the interview to “thank ACN for its help in enlightening Colombians, in opening their eyes to suffering and to the other Colombia” as well as “for its efforts in ensuring that the Pope’s message reaches the whole country, and especially the marginal areas”.

Finally the Italian Archbishop issued an invitation “to join in the prayers and to sacrifice to God something we find difficult to do without, thus ensuring the success of the Pope’s visit”. After all, its success depends on God, as does everything in the Church. “I want to encourage you to ask God for the Holy Father’s enlightenment. Pray for the Pope to open the hearts of all the people so that the Lord will find them ready to receive his message and to renew their lives after the visit.”


Thanks to the generosity of its benefactors the foundation ACN was able to support more than 64 projects in Colombia to the tune of 700,000 euros in 2016. They are concerned primarily with training 667 seminarians from eleven dioceses and with securing the subsistence of nuns and priests. The regions which have benefited from this support include the apostolic vicariates of Guapi, Puerto Gaitán and Puerto Leguízamo-Solano and the needy dioceses of, among others, Quibdó, Istmina-Tadó, Mocoa-Sibundoy and Málaga-Soatá. 


God alone can inspire people - Cuba

Thanks to your help and generosity, we were able to support the Servants of Mary, Help of the Sick in Cuba. Sister Brunilda writes to say that ‘thanks to your help’ she and her three fellow sisters are living their lives to ‘the heartbeat of divine providence’.

For God alone ‘can inspire people to help’ for projects such as these, where ‘the sick are suffering in inhuman conditions, without the right medication and often in houses that have been destroyed by the storms’. The sisters are the ‘feet and hands’ of Jesus, she writes.

‘But you are the heart and the nervous system that is keeping alive the body of Christ in Cuba.’

Without the help of our benefactors the sisters could not ‘keep God’s Hand open to heal, to comfort and bestow His Mercy, freely and without expecting any reward’.

This article can be found in Mirror 0318.

Christ Comes Begging with Us

Quietly, a young religious Sister enters the noisy bar. She belongs to the congregation of the Little Sisters of the Poor and she is begging for alms. She stretches her hand out to a man, who is notorious for his hatred of the Church, and he spits in her face, laughing derisively. Quietly, she wipes her face and says, That was for me. Now will you give me something for the poor?The mocking smile dies on the man’s face and his eyes open in wonderment. He asks her pardon and gives – more than she had dared to hope.

Bishop Raul Castillo of La Guaira, Venezuela, is happy to tell people this true story. It takes a lot of courage, he says, to put your dignity in your open hands and beg. But, as he also knows, ‘Christ comes begging with us.’ For here it is about ‘God’s first love, the poor’, as Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI puts it in his book on Jesus of Nazareth.

For Bishop Raul, that also includes his priests, religious Sisters and seminarians. And it is they who are combatting the immense spiritual poverty of today, for as Pope Francis says in his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium: ‘The worst discrimination which the poor suffer is the lack of spiritual care.’

The 19 young men in Saint Peter’s Seminary in La Guaira are well aware of this. They see the poverty in the country, the lack of basic necessities and the widespread violence. They themselves suffer from the same shortages and Bishop Raul has asked for help to provide them with the barest necessities – soap, eggs, milk, flour, paper. As for money, they have none, and in any case it would be of little worth, for inflation here is the highest in the world today.

Money from abroad would help them to address the material needs and at the same time prepare for the growing spiritual need. Many of the seminarians have themselves known past sorrow and suffering.

When Luis Carlos felt the call of God, he was already engaged. The parting was not easy. Fellow seminarian Caesar Rafael suffered cancer of the lymph nodes at the age of 10. He underwent chemotherapy, but then when he was 14 the cancer returned. This time the chemotherapy was followed by radiotherapy. Since then, he seems to have been in good health. He gave up his studies in machine engineering after two years and entered the seminary.

Another student for the priesthood, Esteban Marcanos lost his mother when he was just one year old. He was brought up by his father in his grandparents’ house. Then his father died when he was just 16. Yet he never ceased to believe in God’s love, and today he is training for the priesthood.

No one knows what will happen to this country in the future. But one thing is certain: without the Church the spiritual poverty will continue to increase. Luis, Caesar and Esteban want to combat this with the sacraments, the signs of God’s love.

And this too is what the 20 young men in the seminary of the Mother of the Redeemer in Carupano are preparing for. They also have no fear of the future, although they too lack even the barest necessities.

We have promised to help both Carupano and La Guaira. Our aid will help them towards their goal, expressed in the words of Pope Francis: ‘Our preferential option for the poor must mainly translate into a privileged and preferential religious care.’ (Evangelii Gaudium, 200).

This article can be found in Mirror 0118.

Co-workers in the Kingdom of Love

In her ‘Prayer on growing older’ Saint Teresa of Avila says: ‘Lord protect me from gloomy saints. Keep me reasonably sweet, for a sour old person is one of the crowning works of the devil’.

The discalced Carmelite Sisters of Barquisimeto in Venezuela are not necessarily all saints, but old and sour they certainly are not – rather they are all loving and affectionate.

And yet these daughters of Saint Teresa do not have an easy life. Barquisimeto’s eleven Sisters also suffer from the poverty afflicting their once oil-rich country, which has been brought to its knees by political and economic mismanagement – and a social crisis bordering on civil war.

The worst thing for them is the lack of medical supplies, which two of the Sisters depend on for their lives. Many foodstuffs are largely unobtainable and even water is in short supply.

Moreover, they have no running water, and they cannot afford to bore a well in the convent grounds. Meanwhile, there is a growing climate of superstition and idolatry in the country, involving the theft of human organs and bones obtained through the desecration of graves.

To avoid this danger, the Sisters have had to remove the mortal remains of their deceased foundress and fellow Sisters from the public cemetery and laid them in a place of safety.

‘Through our prayers we are co-workers in the Kingdom of Love, even in this world’, writes their 37-year-old abbess, Mother Isabel. Five of the 11 Sisters are younger than her. Without outside aid they could not fulfil their vocation and mission of devoting their whole lives to God in prayer.

It is a similar story for the 32 Trappist nuns in Barquisimeto. Sister Lilian has already had two strokes and Sister Bernarda suffers from muscular dystrophy and high blood pressure. The others go without in order to pay for their medication, yet as Mother Paola writes, ‘This will still not be enough. Nevertheless, we continue to pray and work, with joy and hope in our hearts.’

Archbishop Antonio Lopez Castillo of Barquisimeto adds his own plea: ‘Please help. The Sisters are indispensable to the archdiocese. We need the prayers of these Sisters.’ 

ACN is determined to provide the Carmelite and Trappist Sisters in Barquisimeto the little they need to survive.

It is likewise a matter of survival for the Carmelite Sisters in Sebikotane, in the Archdiocese of Dakar in Senegal. Again, as Archbishop Benjamin Ndiaye assures us, their prayer is ‘an enormous support for the diocese, and especially for the seminary where Senegalese priests have been trained for generations’.

But the Sisters need a car, to transport the vegetables grown in their convent garden and the chickens they raise to the market in Dakar, 30 miles (50 km) away.

This is the main way that the Sisters, who come from Ghana, Sierra Leone, Togo, the Cape Verde Islands and Senegal support themselves.

The old car is now worn out by and costing them too much in repairs. We have promised them a new car.

This article can be found in Mirror 0218.

Pope Francis - God Never Disappoints

Hope is a basic human need: hope for the future, belief in life, so-called ‘positive thinking.’ But it is important that this hope is placed in what can really help you to live and give meaning to our existence. This is why Scripture warns us against the false hopes that the world presents to us, exposing their uselessness and demonstrating their foolishness. It does so in various ways, but especially by denouncing the falsehood of the idols in which man is continually tempted to place his trust, making them the object of his hope.

The prophets and scholars in particular insist on this, touching a nerve centre of the believer’s journey of faith. Because faith means trusting in God — those who have faith trust in God.

But there is a moment when, in meeting life’s difficulties, man experiences the fragility of that trust and feels the need for various certainties, for tangible, concrete assurances. I entrust myself to God, but the situation is rather serious and I need a little more concrete reassurance.

And there lies the danger! And then we are tempted to seek even ephemeral consolations that seem to fill the void of loneliness and alleviate the fatigue of believing. And we think we can find them in the security that money can give, in alliances with the powerful, in worldliness, in false ideologies.

Sometimes we look for them in a god that can bend to our requests and magically intervene to change the situation and make it as we wish; an idol, indeed, that in itself can do nothing. It is impotent and deceptive. But we like idols; we love them!

Once, in Buenos Aires, I had to go from one church to another, a thousand meters, more or less. And I did so on foot. And between them there is a park, and in the park there were little tables, where many, many fortune tellers were sitting. It was full of people who were even waiting in line. You would give them your hand and they’d begin, but the conversation was always the same: ‘there is a woman in your life, there is a darkness that comes, but everything will be fine …’. And then, you paid.

And this gives you security? It is the security of — allow me to use the word — nonsense. Going to a seer or to a fortune teller who reads cards: this is an idol. When we are attached to them, we buy false hope. Whereas, in that gratuitous Hope, which Jesus Christ brought us, freely giving His life for us, sometimes we fail to fully trust.

A Psalm brimming with wisdom depicts in a very suggestive way the falsity of these idols that the world offers for our hope and on which men of all ages are tempted to rely is Psalm 115, which is recited as follows:

‘Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands.

They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. 

They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. 

They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; 

and they do not make a sound in their throat. 

Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them!’ 

(vv. 4-8).

The psalmist also presents to us, a bit ironically, the absolutely ephemeral character of these idols. And we must understand that these are not merely figures made of metal or other materials but are also those we build in our minds:

  • when we trust in limited realities that we transform into absolute values, or
  • when we diminish God to fit our own template and our ideas of divinity; a god that looks like us is understandable, predictable, just like the idols mentioned in the Psalm.

Man, the image of God, manufactures a god in his own image, and it is also a poorly realised image. It does not hear, does not act, and above all, it cannot speak. But, we are happier to turn to idols than to turn to the Lord.

Many times, we are happier with the ephemeral hope that this false idol gives us, than with the great and sure Hope that the Lord gives us.

In contrast to hoping in a Lord of life who, through His Word created the world and leads our existence, [we turn to] dumb effigies. Ideologies with their claim to the absolute, wealth, power and success, vanity, with their illusion of eternity and omnipotence, values such as physical beauty and health: when they become idols to which everything is sacrificed, they are all things that confuse the mind and the heart, and instead of supporting life, they lead to death.

It is terrible to hear, and painful to the soul. Some years ago I heard of a very beautiful woman who boasted about her beauty. She said, as if it were entirely natural: ‘Yes, I had to have an abortion because my figure is very important’. These are idols, and they lead you down the wrong path, and do not give you happiness.

The message of the Psalm is very clear. If you place hope in idols, you become like them: hollow images with hands that do not feel, feet that do not walk, mouths that cannot speak. You no longer have anything to say; you become unable to help, to change things, unable to smile, to give of yourself, incapable of love.

And we, men of the Church, need to abide in the world but defend ourselves from the world’s illusions, the idols that I mentioned. As the Psalm continues, we must trust and hope in God, and God will bestow the blessing.

‘O Israel, trust in the Lord…. 

O House of Aaron, put your trust in the Lord…. 

You who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord…. 

The Lord has been mindful of us; he will bless us’ (vv. 9, 10, 11, 12).

The Lord always remembers. Even in the bad times He remembers us. And this is our Hope. And it is the Hope that does not disappoint. Never.

Idols always disappoint; they are make-believe; they are not real.

Here is the wonderful reality of Hope: in trusting in the Lord, we become like Him. His blessing transforms us into his children who share in His life.

Hope in God allows us to enter, so to speak, within the range of His remembrance, of His memory that blesses us and saves us.

And it is then that a Hallelujah can burst forth in praise to the living and true God, who was born for us of Mary, died on the Cross and rose again in glory. And in this God we have Hope, and this God never disappoints.

This article can be found in Mirror 0118.

Reflecting Christ’s Light in Cuba

In September 2017 vast areas of Cuba were struck by Hurricane Irma. The island was pounded by winds gusting up to 160 miles (250 km) an hour, torrential rainfall, tidal surges with waves of up to 30 feet and widespread flooding. At least 10 people lost their lives and there was extensive damage across wide swathes of the country. And while hurricanes are no rarity in this region, Hurricane Irma was more powerful than anything people here have experienced for decades.

Needless to say, many of the Catholic dioceses in the country have also suffered from this natural disaster, and many of the people have been forced to stand helpless at the sight of their damaged homes and churches.

In the archdiocese of Camaguey, for example, one chapel was completely destroyed, three churches were left in danger of collapse and five other churches and chapels suffered severe damage. The hurricane raged for nine hours, and thousands of people had to be evacuated from their homes.

Just as soon as the worst of the hurricane had passed, Archbishop Wilfredo Pino Estevez was out, examining the scene of the devastation. In the town of Esmeralda, which was particularly hard hit, he found the church totally destroyed.

‘It was painful to see our church razed to the ground’, he said, ‘with the benches tossed hither and thither and the holy pictures and statues smashed.’

Although it was still raining heavily, he stood on the spot where the Church had once been and spoke to a married couple there. The woman, whose name was Ismaela, said to him, ‘Well, Bishop, the chapel may have collapsed, but not the Church.’ For of course the Church is not merely a building of stone, but the living Body of Christ, which no storm can destroy, even if the buildings collapse.

Now the time has come to start rebuilding. Archbishop Wilfredo is concerned above all for the people who have been left homeless and consequently he has asked ACN to help him purchase 6,500 corrugated steel roofing sheets. 5,000 of them will be given out to those who need them, so that their families can once again have a roof over their heads. The rest he intends to use to repair the damage on some of the churches and chapels. We are helping him reflect Christ’s light in Cuba.

This article can be found in Mirror 0817.