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from issue no. 04 - 2004

CHURCH. Interview with Cardinal Rodolfo Quezada Toruño

The Gospel and the option for the poor

A meeting with the archbishop of Guatemala City who evokes the years of the military regime and the murder of Monsignor Gerardi. Looking at the present, he takes stock of the situation of the Guatemalan Church and of the new government of the country

by Davide Malacaria

Rodolfo Quezada Toruño in Guatemala city.

Rodolfo Quezada Toruño in Guatemala city.

The press have described him as Guatemalan of the year. He jokes about it and says that it’s the second time it’s happened: “I’m a recidivist”, he concludes. Rodolfo Quezada Toruño is the first Guatemalan cardinal to be born in his own country, in 1932, in Guatemala City. John Paul II placed the purple biretta on his head on 21 October 2003. A nomination which he explains like this: “It was not a reward for my merits. I think it was rather the recognition of how much the Guatemalan Church had done for the poor in the past years, especially during the years of the persecution”. Persecution, indeed. A terrible persecution, especially in the ’eighties, when the military regime unleashed all of its ferocity against the defenseless civilian population and the Church, which had never ceased to be close to its flock. That is the past, the press writes, dating the end of one of the most bloody civil wars that have afflicted Latin America to 1996. But maybe not. Given that the climate of violence has not yet vanished from this small South American country which in 1998 saw the assassination of Monsignor Juan Jose Gerardi Condera, auxiliary bishop of Guatemala city, the symbol of the resistance of the Church to the dictatorship. A murder around which even today, despite investigations and trials, the mystery remains thick. Cardinal Quezada Toruño knew Monsignor Gerardi well. He worked with him to bring about the pacification of the country. From 1988 to 1992 the cardinal in fact headed the commission for national reconciliation which, through its work, brought about peace between the military and the guerillas. We met the cardinal in Rome when he was taking possession of the title of the church of San Saturnino.
Did your vocation arise from some particular happening in your youth?
QUEZADA TORUÑO: No, I was a normal boy, raised in a middle class family in Guatemala. I believe that my vocation was influenced very much by the fact that in my family priests were always spoken of very well. But I also owe a lot to my Jesuit uncle, so much so that my full name is Rodolfo Ignazio: I was born when he was in the novitiate. I studied theology and law at the Gregorian in Rome, staying in the Collegio Pio Latino. But I was also at San Luigi dei Francesi and at the college of Santa Maria dell’ Anima.
When you returned to Guatemala as a priest, how did you find the Church?
QUEZADA TORUÑO: In 1956, when I was ordained, it was said that 95% of the population was Catholic. Whereas today 70% or at most 75% are Catholics. But I don’t consider it a drama. Our Church is alive: there are many Catholics involved in the progress of the Country and in the mission of the Church, while then adherence to the faith was often only a formality.
What brought about the change?
QUEZADA TORUÑO: The fact that the Church in Guatamela has expended its efforts in recent years on the peace process, as well as on helping the many refugees who fled the country during the civil war. A Church that has been close to the native peoples who resisted the dictatorship and that has striven a great deal for the promotion of human rights.
What do you remember about the years of persecution?
QUEZADA TORUÑO: The violence. When I was appointed bishop, in 1972, I was sent as auxiliary to the diocese of Zacapa, where the guerilla warfare began and where the civil war claimed more than 20,000 lives. When I arrived, the situation was stabilizing itself, even if people were still being arrested and assassinated. I often had to mediate with the military authorities for the liberation of some prisoner. But the real war had by then shifted to the high plateaus. There it was terrible. Especially in Quiché, the diocese of Gerardi.
A group of Catholic faithful around “the black Christ” of Guatemala

A group of Catholic faithful around “the black Christ” of Guatemala

Where did you meet Gerardi?
QUEZADA TORUÑO: He was vicar of the parish I belonged to. I went to see him during holidays and spent a lot of time with him. I owe my vocation also to those meetings. Once I told him that I wanted to dedicate myself to teaching, following the example of some brothers, but he discouraged me …
Do you remember when the military authorities expelled Gerardi from Quiché?
QUEZADA TORUÑO : Yes. But I also remember when he came back to home, after being driven out of his diocese. That day at the airport there was myself, the chargé d’affaires from the nunciature, the auxiliary bishop of Guatemala City awaiting his arrival. Lucky that we were there at the airport. I believe that our presence made the soldiers back off taking him prisoner and killing him. At least that was my clear impression that day. So Gerardi was “only” exiled again: he was taken and forced to board another plane, this time for Salvador.
What do you remember about him?
He is remembered for the great work he did in defense of human rights. And that is just. But it’s often forgotten that the work was dictated by a great faith, by great piety. What he did was nothing other than follow the Gospel. He was a man of extraordinary and joyous faith: one of the images most dear to me is when he dressed up as a clown to amuse his nephews and nieces. He worked for the peace of the country, certainly, but I’d be pleased if he were remembered as a good pastor …
The circumstances surrounding his death still remain mysterious …
QUEZADA TORUÑO: Indeed. But we want to know who killed him and why. Because of that, despite the fact that great pressure has been applied to get the diocese to withdraw from the case, where it is the plaintiff, we have stood fast. We want to know the truth, to know who to forgive.
Why was there so much violence against the Church from the military regime?
QUEZADA TORUÑO: So much, yes … four hundred catechists and thirteen priests were killed in those years …I believe the reason was that the Guatemalan Church had adopted the option for the poor. And when the repression began, it did not remain silent. Thus they thought we were guerillas. An accusation directed especially at our catechists, for whom the very fact of having a Bible was a motive for suspicion. Now we have gathered material for more than eighty of them to be recognized as martyrs. It was the Holy Father himself, during a visit ad limina, who asked us to do it. The Holy Father was always close to us in difficult times. He came to visit our small country as many as three times …
Monsignor Juan José Gerardi assassinated in April 1998

Monsignor Juan José Gerardi assassinated in April 1998

Returning to the military oppression, what motivated your option for the poor?
QUEZADA TORUÑO: The option for the poor is not in any way subversive, it is a choice dictated solely by the Gospel. If you followed the Gospel there was nothing else to do except be with them. Some people, even today, do not understand, they think that this choice is something exclusive and excluding. The Lord died for everyone, certainly, but at that moment we had to be with the poor and the oppressed. And now as then: in Guatemala 80% of the people do not live, but survive, in a state of poverty. Of that 80% of the population, about 40% live in a condition of extreme misery. That is against human rights. Before anything we have to save human life, the rest (education, health, working for agricultural development etc.) comes afterwards. Because of this we bishops have requested all governments to make laws which promote the social progress of these poor people. As Paul VI said, it is necessary to pass from hate to love, from injustice to justice, from lies to truth. And that is the Gospel.
On that topic, you were one of the first signatories of a document drawn up in agreement with the United Nations, delivered to the new president Oscar Berger (elected in December 2003), and requesting the enactment of measures aimed at promoting social development and the defense of human rights.
QUEZADA TORUÑO: The peace agreements, signed in 1996 in Esquipulas by the government and the revolutionary forces, provided both for the end of the civil war and the enactment of measures aimed at removing the cause of the conflict, such as the recognition of the identity and of the rights of the Indio peoples, the promotion of education, the demilitarization of public security and so on. I was very happy that after those agreements the bloody war, which caused 200,000 deaths and 100,000 refugees, was over. But as for the other aspects, we are still far away from satisfying the terms agreed in 1996. For that to happen there must be serious political will and a lot of money. The Guatemalan Episcopal Conference has never ceased to ask that the measures be put into practice. In that sense we have never stopped being a voice for those who have no voice.
How do you judge the current government, not least in view of the fact that people famous for their efforts in defense of human rights, such as Rigoberta Menchú, are linked to it in various ways?
QUEZADA TORUÑO: I met Rigoberta during the negotiations for the peace agreement, as I did the other people of whom you speak. People whom I have come to value and esteem. But I wouldn’t want to make hasty judgments. The custom with us is to give the hundred days of doubt in favor. It is a government of business people… We’ll see. I’m pleased that the president as well as his vice-president are Catholics.
At the elections Efrain Rioss Mont, who led the country during the worst stage of the repression, was also a candidate.
QUEZADA TORUÑO: I can only say that he didn’t win the elections [he smiles and explains that when he is asked about him, he generally changes the subject, ed.] I am very happy for his brother, who is my auxiliary bishop. An extraordinary person. I want to stress that the turnout at the polls was the highest in our country’s history.
How does the Church express its relationship with the indigenous ethnic groups? Do you have the problem of the inculturation of faith?
QUEZADA TORUÑO: The culture of the indigenous groups is one the great riches of our country. The first bishop of Guatemala said that the Church should recognize the Indios and that they should recognize the Church. A process which is not yet finished. So the inculturation of the faith is not a problem, but a challenge, rather. It must be done with judgment, without mixing the Christian identity with another which is not Christian. One has to take account of the fact that in Guatemala there is not just one single Indio ethnic group, but twenty-two, each different from the others even in language. Consider that when Indios of different ethnic groups want to talk to each other, they often have to use Spanish. The liturgical texts have been translated into the languages of some of the larger ethnic groups, but not into all. Out of that has come a very fertile dialogue between the commission in charge of providing these translations and the Indio priests.
Are there many Indio priests?
QUEZADA TORUÑO: Yes. In my diocese almost all the parish priests are Indio, and they work very well. They must be given space. In that hope I believe that one day we will also have Indio bishops. But I believe the greatest wealth of the Guatemalan Church is the large participation of laity in the evangelizing mission of the church, especially through the delegates of the Word and the animators of the community, a fine legacy from the great experience that came out of rural Catholic Action. These people guarantee that in all the villages celebration of the Word takes place. I don’t know how many thousands of delegates of the Word there are in our country. When I was bishop of Zacapa, the diocese had thirty five priests, fifty religious and about seven hundred delegates of the Word, many of whom were also ministers of worship. That made it possible for all the population of the many villages spread throughout the territory to join in the liturgical celebration and receive communion every Sunday. I remember that during a meeting we bishops of Guatemala had with the Holy Father, we told him that these people are the backbone of all the pastoral work done in our country. An immense treasure when you also consider that many of our candidates for the priesthood are relatives of theirs.
Are there permanent deacons in your country?
QUEZADA TORUÑO: Two or three. The delegates of the Word and the ministers of worship can perform the same duties.
The general assembly of CELAM is planned for 2006. Do you consider it an important appointment?
QUEZADA TORUÑO: I have heard it was intended to hold a new gathering of CELAM, and that there was a suggestion to set up a commission which would submit to the Holy Father a possible central topic for discussion. But the Holy Father must decide. I think it is still too early for me to express a personal opinion, not least because I prefer to listen to others.
Do you think there is a close bond between the Latin American cardinals?
QUEZADA TORUÑO: There’s no doubt that indeed thanks to CELAM, there is a sense of familiarity among the bishops of Latin America. And also among the cardinals, for whom I have great respect. But we are certainly not a lobby, as I believe European bishops and cardinals are not. There is great communion among us, a mutual respect, but nothing more. As for my own personal dream, I miss the unity of Central America. I think the breaking-up of the federal pact among the Central American countries in 1939 was a tragedy. I dream of dying with a Guatemalan identity card and a Central American passport.

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