Diary of Cafod visit to Nicaragua and El Salvador

By Canon Chris Fallon and Father Stephen Pritchard

For the 40th anniversary of St Oscar Romero’s martyrdom, his relic will be received into the Metropolitan Cathedral in an ecumenical service on Monday 23 March at 6pm and venerated at two Masses on Sunday 29 March – the first at 11am at St Gregory’s, Weld Bank, Chorley and the second at 6pm at Liverpool Hope Chapel at which the Archbishop will preside; then at 7.15pm Clare Dixon, head of Cafod’s Latin America Department, will give a talk. All are welcome to these events.

With Archbishop McMahon unable to make the trip with Cafod to Central America, Father Stephen Pritchard and Canon Chris Fallon represented him and the diocese on a 15-day visit to view some of the charity’s work, get a better sense of the Church context in Nicaragua and El Salvador, and integrate some of this experience into the life of Liverpool Archdiocese.

This brief diary highlights some of the experiences we had during our visit.


Tuesday 14  January
Nicaraguan Episcopal Conference offices
: Meeting with Cardinal Brennes and Bishop Herrera, President of Caritas Nicaragua. We were immersed into Nicaragua’s volatile situation: since April 2018 when the Nicaraguan government suppressed peaceful protests, 325 people have been killed, over 500 arrested and tens of thousands have fled the country. We heard how Silvio Baez, the auxiliary bishop of Managua who fiercely criticised President Daniel Ortega's brutal crackdown on opposition protesters, has been recalled by the Vatican following death threats. In July 2018 when he and Cardinal Brennes tried to enter a church they were attacked and Bishop Baez was wounded, hit in the stomach and robbed of his episcopal insignia. This picture of social unrest coloured all our subsequent encounters and affects each level of society. Bishop Herrera commented: ‘There are grateful hearts in this country for your visit. We thank you for your solidarity, we are currently suffering.’
Meeting with Cafod Central America team: We heard of some of the grassroots partnerships Cafod has developed across Central America which include aiding farmers to care for the environment and improve crop yield, supporting women’s rights in an unequal society and aiding those defending  human rights.

Wednesday 15 January
John XXIII Institute: Here we saw theory put into practice. We learned that 300,000 people benefit from a pharmacy warehouse we visited. The government does not have the will or means to distribute essential medicines in the rural area. Through the unique network of Catholic churches, many of them having dispensaries, medicines reach the most remote communities.
University of Central America, Managua: We heard a bleak assessment of the present state of the country: ‘Welcome to the nightmare’ was the opening remark as we listened to a leading academic.  We also heard that the Church has had a leading role in ‘protecting people, hiding people, feeding people, healing people; the only place people can truly express themselves.’

Thursday 16 January
Apostolic Nunciature, Managua: Meeting with Papal Nuncio to Nicaragua, Archbishop Stanislaw Sommertag, who shared how the country is ‘a fragile place’ and how through his intervention 90 prisoners were recently released by the government.
Cantera: This inspiring project works with young people over four days of workshops to explore relationships of power and where violence comes from. Seven thousand young people have made a pledge by wearing a ring to show their commitment to fight against gender inequality.

Friday 17 January
Association of Mary Barreda, Leon: After a two-hour road journey we visited the homes of girls being supported by Cafod to gain training and education. The girls and their mothers speak about how they now see themselves as having more rights and choices and how new horizons are opening up for them as they become more independent.

Saturday 18 January
Meeting with Vice-Chancellor of the University of Central America, Managua
: Father Chepe Idiaquez SJ spoke to us of the situation of the university since April 2018 and the importance of human rights in Nicaragua. The Jesuits have been at the forefront of peace negotiations and mediation between the government and opposition groups.


Sunday 19  January
Mass at the tomb of St Oscar Romero, San Salvador Cathedral
: It was also a day of remembrance for Father Octavio Ortiz, the first priest Romero ordained as Archbishop, who was assassinated with four young people in 1979 because the government falsely claimed he was leading a retreat for guerrillas. His head was repeatedly run over by a military vehicle so there could not be an open coffin at the funeral.

Monday 20 January
Hospital of Divine Providence
: We celebrated Mass at the altar where Archbishop Romero was shot and saw the room in the sacristy where he lived for six months and the small house later built for him in the grounds of this hospice, where we listened to the recording of his last words and the gunshot that ended his homily and his life. We visited some of the patients currently being cared for.
San Antonio parish, El Despertar: This was where Father Octavio Ortiz and his catechists were killed in 1979. We met the current parish priest and some of the young people who were preparing the parish celebration of this anniversary which we’d marked in the Cathedral on Sunday.

Tuesday 21 January
Solidarity project, Guaymango
: In this remote village, Cafod’s partner Solidarity is training women to save together so they can fund each other’s projects, starting small businesses to supplement their family’s income. We visited three sisters-in-law whose shanty houses are adjacent to each other along a dirt track: one is fattening chickens, the second keeping pigs and the third running a small shop stocking everything people need in this rural location. Their husbands all have their own small businesses but support their wives in these new enterprises which have brought hope and confidence to their lives.

Wednesday 22 January
Ann Manganaro Clinic, Guarjila
: This village, completely destroyed by government bombing in the civil war, was rebuilt by returning refugees with the help of Father Jon Cortina SJ and included a small clinic staffed by American paediatrician Sr Ann Manganaro and an East German surgeon named Victoria. Many years later, the clinic was recognised by the government and now receives some funding but Cafod’s support is still needed. We met some of the staff recruited and trained while still in their teens by Sr Ann and Victoria.

Thursday 23 January
Meeting with British Ambassador to El Salvador
: Ambassador David Lelliot explained that the UK government’s priorities for El Salvador are the environment, prosperity (including transparency) and human rights. He was pleased to learn about Cafod’s current involvement and keen to visit some of the projects.
University of Central America, San Salvador: The Vice-Chancellor and senior staff briefed us about the University’s determination to form ‘agents of social change’ and their analysis of what they call ‘the national reality’. Every student is required to attend 300 hours of teaching about the history and present-day situation of the country and to spend another 300 hours working on community projects. After 20 years of right-wing government and 10 years of left-wing government, neither of which addressed the corruption and violence which have beset the country, the current president rejects traditional politics and appears to govern by social media and – since our return – sends troops in to occupy his parliament. The university still finds itself threatened because of its insistence on social analysis and justice.

Friday 24 January
University of Central America, San Salvador
: We moved from the Loyola Retreat Centre into a guest house on the campus, less than 100 yards from the garden where six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter were shot by government forces in 1989 and the chapel where the priests are buried.  We had some time to reflect on these events and to visit the Romero Centre, which includes a memorial room dedicated to the many martyrs of this troubled country.
Meetings with human rights workers: We had lunch and dinner with some of the legal aid professionals and other workers funded by Cafod and other charities who were attending a human rights conference at the university.

Saturday 25 January
School visit, La Chacra
: Cafod helps to fund a school started by Franciscan sisters in an area of the city controlled by gangs, to provide alternative futures for the young people who grow up here. After lively demonstrations of music and dance, the school’s first lay headteacher led us on a walking tour of the area it serves, where we saw the poverty which is the backdrop to these children’s lives.
Mass in the university chapel: We concelebrated with Father Jose Maria Tojeira SJ, who was the provincial here in 1990 when the six Jesuits were murdered. This friendly, relaxed and humorous man was typical of so many people we met who had experienced terrible injustice and faced apparently insoluble problems with great faith, joy, hope and gratitude.