The auxiliary bishop of Managua, Monsignor Silvio José Báez, will reach three years of exile on April 23 at the request of Pope Francis, who asked him to leave the country in 2019 to protect him from the death threats he received from the regime. “These have been three years of pain and desolation, but I have not lacked the kind help of God, and the affection and fraternity of the people of God”, he explains in an interview from Miami, where he celebrates the Eucharist every Sunday at St. Agatha Church, which has become a “pilgrimage sanctuary for exiled Nicaraguans”.
At the beginning of the religious celebrations of Holy Week, the bishop recalls the homily he gave at the church of Esquipulas in Managua on Palm Sunday 2019, before leaving for exile, and maintains the conviction that “just as Jesus Christ, crucified by the powers of the world, was resurrected by God to a life that does not end, the crucified peoples, sooner or later, also rise again”.
The bishop describes the system of government in Nicaragua as a “regime of cruelty”, and discards that the hate speech that is performed by the government against the church has any credibility, describing it as “a speech full of lies, that only shows a sign of very strong weakness”.
In this interview, Monsignor Baez shares his “pain, with great intensity”, for the situation in which the political prisoners of the dictatorship find themselves, and raises his voice “demanding their release”, and reveals that when he met with Pope Francis alone in his room, in November of last year, he spoke to him about the prisoners of conscience in Nicaragua. “The pope was surprised, he showed his pain and his surprise as well, because I think he was not sufficiently informed. And he asked me to leave him the document I brought for him. I am sure he did something,” Báez recounted.
Monsignor Silvio José Báez celebrated the creation of a commission of independent experts by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate the rights violations in Nicaragua since 2018. The “prophetic Church” must support the demand for justice, he affirmed, and added, “I am sure that the Church of Nicaragua, led by its bishops, will never bow down to lies, will never be closed in by fear, nor will it ever be an accomplice of unjust and cruel powers.”
Holy Week and the hope of the resurrection
On a day like today, Palm Sunday in 2019, in your homily at the Esquipulas Church in Managua, you described the country’s situation as that of “a crucified people with the hope of resurrection”. How do you view this now, three years later, at the beginning of this new Holy Week?
What I affirmed during my homily three years ago, I keep in my heart, and as the situation becomes more difficult and complex, I have a greater affirmation of that profession of faith that I wanted to share with the people of God.
The cross in Christianity is the symbol of human evil against the innocent, it is the symbol of cruelty against the victim; and the resurrection of Jesus is the great hope that communicates all the certainty that God brings life in the midst of death, and that God is on the side of the victim, of the one who is crucified, of the one who suffers in an innocent way.
I, more than ever, am firm in this conviction, and I can say from my heart to the people of Nicaragua that just as Jesus Christ, crucified by the powers of the world, was resurrected by God to a life that does not end, so too the crucified peoples, sooner or later, are resurrected.
Some bishops and priests have denounced police harassment, even spying in their parishes, in recent days. Will it be possible to carry out the religious celebrations of Holy Week in freedom, now that the covid-19 pandemic in Nicaragua has diminished?
I hope that the people of God will follow the indications of the Episcopal Conference, regarding sanitary measures to avoid new contagions, and that the Holy Week celebrations can be carried out with complete peace of mind, because they nourish the soul of our people, mostly Christian.
The risk of siege and intimidation cannot be ruled out, because the current regime in Nicaragua, in all its historical versions since 1979, has shown itself to be an enemy of the Church, hostile to the Church, as a moral and ethical instance in different ways. Therefore, at this point it is something that we cannot rule out, unfortunately.
These days also saw an increase in the hate speech of Vice President Rosario Murillo, extremely aggressive, against all the people who participated in the marches and civic protests in 2018. But she was particularly harsh against priests and bishops of the Catholic Church. What is the underlying reason for this attack against the Church?
I think that the verbal attacks, full of hatred against the Church, always hold a kind of resentment from the regime of not feeling that religion justifies them and supports them ideologically. And, deep down, it is one more expression of that rejection, that visceral feeling of rejection of the Church that this regime has had throughout the years. I believe that it is a discourse that is increasingly presented with less strength, because it is a discourse full of lies, it is a discourse that tries to deny the truth with verbal aggressiveness, but that is unsustainable, nobody believes it, and it is increasingly a weaker discourse, and the only thing it does is to show a very strong sign of weakness.
Three years of exile
This week marked thirteen years since your ordination as auxiliary bishop of Managua, a position that has been endorsed by Pope Francis. How have you lived, these last three years, separated from Nicaragua?
As you know, I left Nicaragua not by my own decision but in obedience to Pope Francis, due to the death threats I was suffering, and the most paternal explanation he gave me was – I don’t want another bishop martyred in Central America. I left Nicaragua crying, and I have spent these three long years in exile, with the feeling of nostalgia and pain for not being physically present in the midst of my people.
But as I have said on other occasions, one is not where one’s feet are, but where one’s heart and mind are. And I have learned that being far away is not always being absent. Being far away many times is another way of being present, and I have always been present with my affection as a pastor, with my constant prayer and with my prophetic preaching trying to illuminate history and communicating hope to the people of Nicaragua. They have been three years of pain, three years of desolation, but I have not lacked the kind help of God, and the affection and fraternity of the people of God.
The Nicaraguans in the country follow you every Sunday at the homilies you give during masses at St. Agatha’s Church in Miami. This is a church that summons Nicaraguans, but besides that religious service, what other type of activities are you doing in the United States?
St. Agatha’s parish in Miami has become a true pilgrimage sanctuary for exiled Nicaraguans. Every Sunday there are dozens of Nicaraguans who arrive in Miami in heartbreaking emotional situations, and in situations of extreme poverty, and St. Agatha’s has become a place of welcome, support, affection, prayer and guidance. And the first person St. Agatha’s parish welcomed with love was me, when I found myself trapped here by the pandemic.
I would like to thank the parish priest of St. Agatha, Father Marcos Somarriba, a Nicaraguan who has lived here almost all his life, he came here in the eighties. A man with a great heart, a great pastor, and who has opened not only the parish but his heart to the Nicaraguans. He is originally from Chinandega, and I believe that we Nicaraguans should be very grateful to him for the work he is doing. Fifteen days ago he organized a workshop to inform and support exiles about immigration policy and asylum processes in the United States. The Nicaraguans know that the parish of St. Agatha of the parish priest, Father Marcos Somarriba at the head, and with yours truly, who celebrates the Eucharist on Sundays, is open to the Nicaraguans.
The Pope asked me, in November, not to stop preaching at St. Agatha’s every Sunday, as I was doing, and not to abandon my people, and that is what I am doing.
I come to Miami only on Sundays to celebrate the Eucharist from one o’clock in the afternoon here, at eleven o’clock, at this time in Nicaragua. I live an hour and a half from Miami, to the north, and I have been there for almost a year, as a professor of Sacred Scripture, professor of Old Testament at the Saint Vincent de Paul School of Theology of the bishops of Florida, who invited me to join the faculty, and I am there teaching classes and collaborating with the spiritual direction. The Pope agreed, he thought the proposal was very good and thanked the bishops of Florida for the welcome they have given me. I am particularly grateful to Monsignor Thomas Wenski, here in Miami, who has welcomed me as a brother in this local church as well.
A prophetic Church and the demand for justice
Can the Catholic Church in Nicaragua continue to fulfill this prophetic mission under restrictions of freedom and even persecution against the Church itself?
I think so. I think so, because the Church is not a simple non-governmental organization, it is not a simple social welfare association. The Church has a dimension of ministry that sustains it and gives it a place in history. In other words, the Church is the sacrament of Christ, it is the community of faith that makes Jesus Christ and the Gospel present in the world and that proclaims the ways of God towards a greater humanization with hope, freedom and life, until the final salvation. The Church will carry this out until the end of time. In other words, the Church, according to the promise of Jesus, will always remain, and the gates of hell will not be able to stand against her.
Now, I, as a bishop, can tell you from the experience I have with my brother bishops of Nicaragua, that among them there is much wisdom and prudence, and I am sure that they will be able to carry out their mission as a Church, without ever bowing down to lies and fear.
Last week at the UN Human Rights Council, the creation of a new Commission of independent experts to investigate human rights violations, which have occurred in Nicaragua since 2018, was approved. Does this represent hope for hundreds of families who continue to demand justice for assassinations, torture, rapes, for facts that are in impunity? How do you see the role that this Commission can play?
As Church, we announce and preach forgiveness as a way to find authentic reconciliations that can save people; but forgiveness is not opposed to justice, forgiveness is something personal that each person offers from his heart, but this does not go against justice and the demand that those who have committed a crime go to court and pay for what they have done. Sometimes we confuse the two things.
From this premise, as a Church we should be glad that there is a new organism that can establish the truth, point out those responsible for the crimes, and eventually take them to the international courts of justice, the Church should support this, without renouncing to preach forgiveness; they are two very different things, forgiveness is not impunity. So, I am glad that this new Commission exists.
One of the demands that has the greatest consensus among the international community is the need for the return of the international human rights commissions of the OAS, of the UN, and also the exiles, and they mention you, the return of Bishop Silvio José Báez to Nicaragua. Do you hope to be able to return to his homeland?
Metaphorically, I tell you, I feel that I have never left Nicaragua, I am there every day, from the time I get up until I go to bed. Despite my activities here in the United States, I live in Nicaragua, but my dream would be to be there physically.
Now, it is not up to me, as a bishop I am in communion with Pope Francis, and he has asked me not to go to Nicaragua for now. He knows that I am here in the United States and he agrees with the academic and pastoral work that I am doing here in the United States. And he has asked me, however, not to stop calling myself auxiliary bishop of Managua, to keep that title, because I really am, and part of the Episcopal Conference, a full member of the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua. That is why I say that I do not feel that I have left the country.
Now, the moment when I, physically, can return in the midst of the people of Nicaragua, for me it will be the greatest joy of my heart as a pastor. When will it be? I asked the pope, and he pointed his finger at me and said: “He will tell us”, pointing upwards. God will tell us. But I want the people to know that my greatest dream is to be able to return to Nicaragua as a pastor, in the midst of the people, as a brother to walk with others.
This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by our staff