January 10-14, 1999
In the aftermath of the devastating Hurricane Mitch which ravaged much of Central America in late 1998, the President and General Secretary of the Conference considered the desirability, for several reasons, of a delegation of our bishops meeting with the bishops of the countries most affected. Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, Chairman of the Committee on International Policy, was asked to lead the delegation for a brief visit to Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras. The other members of the delegation were Bishop Sean O'Malley, OFM Cap., member of the Board of Catholic Relief Services, and Bishop Michael Warfel, member of the Committee for the Church in Latin America. The delegation was staffed by Thomas Quigley of International Justice and Peace.
The purposes of the visit were elaborated as follows:
- Express the solidarity of the Church in the U.S.
Determine the local churches' views on overall needs, expectations, concerns, etc.
Learn of their assessment of losses of church structures and plans for rebuilding.
Explore with the bishops their views on the equitable and accountable distribution of aid.
Meet with US Embassy and AID officials concerning their reconstruction plans.
Inquire into the feasibility of visits from U.S. dioceses in the coming weeks.
Thanks expecially to the excellent planning and constant accompaniment of the CRS country directors, Mark Snyder in Managua, Walter Blake in San Salvador, and Douglas Ryan in Tegucigalpa, the delegation was able to pack in a large number of meetings, site visits and working meals in the short space of little over three days.
A summary listing of the visits in each country follows:
In Nicaragua, extended meeting and lunch with the Episcopal Conference and the Apostolic Nuncio; meetings with CRS project staff, with US Ambassador Lino Gutiιrrez and USAID director Marilyn Zak, and with David Robleto, Nicaraguan Minister for External Cooperation. Visit to refugee shelter in Ciudad Darνo in Matagalpa diocese; prayer service with community. Concelebrated Mass with CEN General Secretary Bishop Brenes at Carmelite convent. Visit to both the old and the new cathedral.
In El Salvador, meeting with the Episcopal Conference, lunch with Archbishop Sαenz, CEDES President, and Archbishop Barloco, Apostolic Nuncio. Briefing at CRS. Meeting with US Ambassador Anne Patterson and USAID director Ken Ellis. Meeting with National Caritas Team. Mass at Divina Providencia Hospital, at the altar where Archbishop Romero was killed, and visit to his quarters there. Visit to nearly finished cathedral and Romero tomb in the crypt, as well as to the UCA, site of the killing of the Jesuits in 1989.
In Honduras, immediate helicopter fly-over of areas of greatest hurricane damage from the capital to the Gulf of Fonseca. Meeting with Bishop Mauro Muldoon, OFM, President of Caritas. Meeting with President Carlos Flores and with Vice Minister for Finance, Sonia Midence. Meeting with US Ambassador James Creagan and staff. Concelebrated open air Mass in the largest refugee shelter in Tegucigalpa. Dinner with national Caritas directors.
The principal goals of the trip, as listed above, were to learn how the bishops viewed the process of reconstruction in their countries, what role the Church was playing in national reconstruction, and what specific Mitch-related needs were confronting the Church. In addition to questions of church aid coming from abroad, the delegation addressed the issues of migration and the external debt in each country. A summary of these discussions follows:
Reconstruction. In each country, response to the destruction was spoken of in terms of three phases, emergency, short-term (first six months) and long-term. In both Nicaragua and El Salvador, the emergency response was hampered by the still sharp political polarizations that divide each country. The fact that much of the worst damage occurred in municipalities headed by the Sandinistas (in Nicaragua) and the FMLN party (in El Salvador), while the national governments were slow to direct needed help to these areas, has only deepened the mistrust. In all three countries, the Catholic Church was asked by their governments to help coordinate the distribution of emergency relief, principally in the countryside, for the first six weeks or so. This was largely due to the unique network that the Church's parish system represents, including the extensive and effective diocesan Caritas structure, as well as the trust and reputation for integrity that the Catholic Church holds in these countries. Memory of the extreme corruption of the Somoza government after the 1972 Managua earthquake is fresh in everyone's mind.
International Church Aid. In seeking to assess the damage sustained by church properties and the plans of the local churches to rebuild, the delegation informed the bishops of the prospect of assistance from the NCCB through the Committee on the Church in Latin America, and urged each Conference to establish clear priorities on a national basis. Damage to church properties in Nicaragua was especially high along the Rio Coco that forms part of the northern border with Honduras; the rising river simply washed away scores of chapels and parish centers. The Nicaraguan bishops stressed the importance of rebuilding these centers as they are not only places of worship but community centers for the whole community; their reconstruction can be a symbol of a people coming back. The Bishop of Matagalpa noted that two metres of water had flooded his cathedral. The number of churches damaged or destroyed in Honduras was fewer, although a number of church buildings in Tegucigalpa such as the large Salesian church complex near the river were seriously damaged. According to one of the bishops, the German bishops have offered to take care of all.
A subsidiary question of interest to the delegation was to determine whether prospective visits, at least in the near future, by other U.S. bishops and diocesan groups, seeking to express their solidarity with the Central American churches, might create logistical or other difficulties for the local churches. In each country, we were assured that delegations of solidarity had not imposed a burden and were much appreciated.
Debt and Migration. The debt issue was raised especially in Nicaragua and Honduras. Cardinal Obando praised USCC efforts in this area and Honduran President Flores told the delegation that Messrs Wolfenson, Camdessus, and Iglesias all speak highly of the U.S. bishops' work on debt. But, said Flores, it is important to get beyond the debt question (specifically the HIPC initiative--relief for the highly indebted poor countries) and enable Honduras to enter the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI) trade agreement. It is this alone, he claims, that would create sufficient new employment possibilities to relieve the emigration pressures. "More than anything else we need this enhancement."
Bishop Barahona in El Salvador asserted that, while his country was not as directly affected by the hurricane as the others, its needs were in fact greater than theirs due to the density of population in El Salvador. Six million people in the region's smallest country creates a constant pressure to migrate, and with Mitch, people can no longer migrate to Honduras or Nicaragua.
The population pressure was raised pointedly by the Nicaraguan Minister for External Cooperation who spoke of the government's inability to adequately meet pressing social needs, given the country's high birthrate, especially among the poor. He seemed unaware of, and eager to learn about, Natural Family Planning and the Church's teaching on responsible parenthood.
Despite the brevity of the visit, it fulfilled its purposes and provided a rich opportunity to experience first-hand the dedication and determination of the people of these countries and their Pastors to face adversity with a profound faith and an inspiring sense of hope for a better tomorrow. The attitude that this disaster, so destructive of lives, crops, infrastructure and homes, now offers the opportunity not just to rebuild the old but to construct a new and more just society was widespread. In the wake of the Synod for America and the issuance of Ecclesia in America, the commitment of our Conference to continued expression of support and solidarity is assured. Included in that commitment are our ongoing efforts to press our government and the international financial institutions for policies that more fully reflect the goals of hemispheric justice and peace.