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from issue no. 03 - 2005

An interview with Cardinal Obando Bravo

«We can’t remain prisoners of the past»

The Archbishop of Managua is to be proclaimed “cardinal of peace” by the National Nicaraguan Assembly for his work in favor of the political reconciliation of the country.

by Gianni Cardinale

Here above, left, Cardinal Obando Bravo, the President of Nicaragua Enrique Bolaños (in the center of the photo) and the leader of the Sandinista Liberation Front Daniel Ortega at a meeting in the Presidential House in Managua, on 12 January 2005

Here above, left, Cardinal Obando Bravo, the President of Nicaragua Enrique Bolaños (in the center of the photo) and the leader of the Sandinista Liberation Front Daniel Ortega at a meeting in the Presidential House in Managua, on 12 January 2005

The Archbishop of Managua, Cardinal Miguel Obando Bravo, is to be proclaimed “cardinal of peace” by the National Nicaraguan Assembly for his strenuous commitment to reconciliation. The announcement was made by the parliamentarian of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN) and vice-secretary of the Parliament, Edwin Castro. And it was highlighted by the news bulletin on Vatican Radio on 5 February last. «The plenum of the Assembly», Castro said, «has decided to vote a resolution to confer recognition on the cardinal. All the deputies have worked actively for the purpose, which is aimed at honoring the precious contribution made by Cardinal Obando to the overcoming of the crisis in Nicaragua. During his ministry the cardinal has distinguished himself as a mediator in the most difficult moments. His work has, for that matter, already been recognized by the international community and he has been awarded various honors because of it».
In 1990 when the Sandinista party left power in Nicaragua after losing the elections, nobody perhaps could have imagined that fifteen years later there would be a solemn reconciliation with the leaders of the Catholic Church. As Vatican Radio itself recalled, the Sandinista administration «was particularly harsh, going so far as to humiliate the leaders of the local Church so as to tarnish its role. Furthermore, the Executive expelled eighteen priests, slandered the prelates, censored documents of the Holy See, such as the Acts of the Nicaraguan Episcopal Conference». Without taking into account that the apostolic journey of the Pope to Managua in 1983 was marked by protests organized by Sandinista militants.
In recent years however there has been a rapprochement between the Sandinistas and the local Church that culminated in 2003, when the secretary general of the FSLN and former president of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega Saavedra, publicly apologized to the Church and the bishops for the intransigence of his government toward Catholics in the early ’eighties. He did so in a speech given on the 25th anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution. Then, on 19 July 2004, came the speech of Cardinal Obando himself, who before a crowd of 300,000 people, at the mass for peace and reconciliation, said: «Forgiveness offered and accepted, is an indispensable prerequisite for moving toward a genuine authentic and stable peace, because we cannot remain prisoners of our own past». And it was a mass – presided over by the apostolic nuncio Archbishop Jean-Paul Gobel – expressly requested by Ortega himself. «Every human being contains within himself the hope of being able to take up a new path in life», the cardinal pointed out during the homily, underlining at the same time that «in order to lift our eyes toward the future with new prospects and commitments, real repentance is necessary; without it, the wounds will continue to bleed, feeding future generations on endless resentment, a source of vendettas and cause of new disasters».
Also on 12 January last Cardinal Obando was witness to the Acuerdo por el diálogo nacional signed by the president, the conservative Enrique Bolaños Geyer, and Sandinista leader Ortega. This agreement, at least for the present, has settled a serious and intricate politico-institutional crisis that had been going on for some time, with a former president – the Liberal Arnoldo Alemán – in jail for corruption. However he controls the main rightwing party in parliament and is hostile to Bolaños, while the Sandinistas are growing in political influence and are ready to regain the presidency at the elections planned for 2006. Ortega himself (who has lost in the last three elections) will be candidate for the FSLN, despite the opposition of the reforming wing of the Sandinista Party.
30Days took advantage of Cardinal Obando’s stay in Rome for the plenary assembly of the Congregation for Divine Worship to ask him some questions about the reconciliation process going on in his country. The cardinal can, with every right, be considered the “dean” of the Latin American cardinal electors, the one with most “years of service”, since he has headed the diocese of Managua for more than thirty five years.

Your Eminence, how do you assess the process of reconciliation that has taken place in Nicaraguan society in recent years?
MIGUEL OBANDO BRAVO: We must resolve our problems in civilized fashion, through dialogue. Unfortunately in Nicaragua we know that when dialogue failed, war came. I have been bishop of Managua for thirty-five years and witness to two civil wars: first that of the Sandinistas against the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza and then that of the contras against the Sandinista regime. And in these years I was always involved in mediating, in seeking dialogue. Unfortunately we have sat down to dialogue only after there have already been so many deaths. At present also I am trying to encourage dialogue between the political interests to avoid the situation degenerating. And it was because of this that I accepted to be witness and guarantor of the Acuerdo por el diálogo nacional on 12 January last. To avoid the errors of the past being repeated.
The mea culpa expressed by the Sandinista leader Ortega made news in the Italian press…
OBANDO BRAVO: Ortega publicly asked for forgiveness and asked me to celebrate a mass of reconciliation. I considered it right to do so because, I repeat, dialogue is the highroad to peace.
Some people have questioned Ortega’s sincerity
OBANDO BRAVO: Only the Lord can read the heart of a man. I understand that politicians may make different assessments. But if someone asks forgiveness and reconciliation, we pastors cannot draw back.
Children in the Cathedral of Managua

Children in the Cathedral of Managua

This not drawing back of yours raised criticism in some sectors of the political right…
OBANDO BRAVO: Nicaragua today is, thanks be to God, a pluralist country. And my episcopal motto is the phrase of Saint Paul: «Omnibus omnia factus sum», «I have been all things to all men». I get up at five in the morning and go to bed late so as to receive and visit my priests and faithful even in the most remote villages. But this does not make news. It also happens that I meet politicians who ask for an audience with me. And that instead makes news. So it doesn’t surprise me that I have been criticized. Especially now that we are already in an election climate.
But the presidential elections will take place only next year…
OBANDO BRAVO: In November. But the political campaign has begun already. I only hope that this elections take place in complete tranquility and that Nicaraguans be able to freely exercise their right to vote without considering anyone who thinks differently as an enemy to be brought down but simply as a person with different political ideas. And I believe that diversity of thinking often enriches a society.
Do you fear outside influences on next year’s elections?
OBANDO BRAVO: The elections are an internal question for the Nicaraguan people, who must be in charge of their own destiny. Certainly there can be international observers to guarantee that the electoral process be correct and credible. But I would not like external intervention of any other kind.
Will the Church have preferences?
OBANDO BRAVO: Naturally not. We can’t engage in propaganda for party “x” or party “y”. Of course if there are great injustices, the Church is ready to denounce them, but it is not willing to enter into party politics. If a political leader asks for an audience or a blessing, we will give it him, whatever party he’s from. I’ve always voted and I believe I will also do so this time. But the vote is secret. And it’s well that it remain so. As members of the hierarchy, we must not be party militants.
Your Eminence, among the cardinals working on the Latin American continent you are the one with the most “years of service”. What is your diagnosis of the health of the Church in South America?
OBANDO BRAVO: The Latin American Church is a Church totally dedicated to the noble task of evangelizing. And I believe it is a strong Church, through the grace of God. Strong because it loves Jesus and the Most Holy Virgin Mary who is invoked with the multiple attributes that the Christian people have given her in the course of centuries: Most Pure, Immaculate, Mother of Good Succor, Help of Christians… And because it has a great devotion to Jesus in the Sacrament. If you go into the cathedral of Managua on any Thursday evening you will find thousands of faithful gathered in adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament, which they carry in procession and then join in holy mass.
A historical weak point of the Latin American Church is the scarcity of vocations to the priesthood…
OBANDO BRAVO: In Nicaragua in the archdiocesan seminary of Managua alone there are eighty seminarians. Furthermore there is also the “Redemptoris Mater” seminary of neo-catechumens with another forty aspirants to the priesthood. When I came to Managua there were only ten seminarians. Today in my diocese the majority of the clergy is Nicaraguan. And it is a young clergy. The only old one is the archbishop…
Do you believe it probable that there will be a Latin American pope in the future?
OBANDO BRANDO: The possibility cannot be discarded. But the important thing is that the cardinal who is elected pope be a man of God and be the best person to lead His church. Whether Italian, European, American, African or from Oceania, is less important. But here we are talking about the future. In Nicaragua we hope and pray that the Lord will preserve John Paul II for us much longer, the Pope who twice visited our beloved country.

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