Although there are many similarities in culture and in history: recent civil wars, for example, as well as earthquakes and hurricanes, and common economic difficulties, each country nevertheless has a very distinct sense of its own identity.
When I landed at the airport of San José, Costa Rica, there were several hundred people waiting in line to cross the customs and border, all of them from the United States. By the way they were dressed, it was obvious that they were all going on vacation. I asked some of them where they were heading. They answered that in Costa Rica there are many national parks and beaches which are very well kept and inexpensive. However, behind this first impression of a land of vacation, the everyday reality of the people is somewhat different.
When you ask other Central Americans about Costa Rica, they often respond saying that it is the most economically stable country of Central America. This may be true, but that does not mean that there are no difficulties.
Costa Ricans are proud of the fact that they are a country that has no army. This is incredible when you think that Costa Rica is in a region which has known so many armed conflicts. The funds normally used for the military have been used for education.
Since Costa Rica has done better economically than its neighbors, one of the difficulties it faces is the problem of immigration. At this moment there are 4 million people living in Costa Rica. Some say that out the 4 million, 1 million are Nicaraguans. Since Costa Rica has had to welcome its neighbors and since it has no army to defend its borders, the social service system is overloaded.
The fact that so many Nicaraguans have immigrated to Costa Rica has recreated many tensions between the two countries. The need for dialogue and reconciliation is great. Many Costa Ricans feel that some Nicaraguans abuse the social service system. In the same way, although there are many honest and hard working Nicaraguans, many Nicaraguans feel an element of racism in the way they are treated. Immigration is complex. To open the doors of our countries and cities is never easy.
I was able to meet with a group of young people working in youth ministry. They showed a great interest in the meetings in Taizé; as usual, two young people in youth ministry are spending three months in Taizé this summer. Our meeting ended with a prayer with Taizé songs, prepared by those who were in Taizé last summer. The decoration included a panel bearing Brother Roger’s words, “In everything, peace of heart”. Perhaps that is what we need most of all, “peace of heart”. Not a peace that makes us run away, but a peace that enables us to be inventive and creative in order to try to find solutions to the problems we face.
Driving from the airport to the centre of Managua, the capital, it seemed like entering a city that in some ways appears abandoned and desolate. Although there were shopping centers, as in any major city, the general impression was one of things having come to a standstill.
One of the first places we visited was the Old Catholic Cathedral. Just in front of it is the tomb one of the heroes of the Sandinista Revolution and a monument to the revolution. For some years there were burning torches in front of the tomb and the monument. Today the torches have gone. Nearby, there is large open area where many demonstrations and political rallies were held. No one seems to take care of it anymore.
During my visit I stayed at the home of the Little Brothers of the Gospel; they try to live a life of prayer among the very poor, sharing the same conditions as the people they live with. Since there is no running water, every morning at 5 am one of the brothers goes to fetch water. Like most of the surrounding houses, the doors and windows of their house are covered with iron bars in order to protect themselves from robberies and violence.
In spite of the conditions, the brothers are far from losing hope. In fact, through their daily commitments they try to transmit hope to others. Brother Carlos works in a centre for removing tattoos. Why is he involved in this? How does that create hope? In Nicaragua and in most Central American countries, tattoos are associated with youth gangs, which are called “maras”. The “maras” are known for their extreme violence. The members are mostly young people who have not found any meaning in their lives and have lost all hope. For many of these young people the only way of feeling that they “belong” is by joining a “mara”, where senseless violence is like a cry for help and recognition.
One of the ways that you can identify a member of a “mara” is if the person has a tattoo. The tattoo often has a symbol which identifies you with a specific gang. If you try to leave the “mara”, you may be killed. If you try to find a job and have a tattoo, you are often rejected. Thus, you are trapped; apparently there is no way out. This being the situation, Brother Carlos tries to help the youth who want to begin a new life and leave the “maras” by removing the tattoos.
Brother Joseph, who has been in Nicaragua for 26 years, said to me “Many people thought that the Sandinista Revolution was like taking part in building the Kingdom of God. There was so much hope. People gave the best of themselves in order to make Nicaragua a better country. It is true that the Sandinistas made many mistakes, but at least there was a sense that we can change the situation of this country, which for many years had been under a dictatorship. That is the reason why we were deeply disappointed when they lost the elections in 1990. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why there is so much frustration and sadness in the daily lives of many people. Like the people of God in the Old Testament, we now have to cross the desert. Are we ready to spend forty years in the desert?”
How can one communicate hope when daily life is so hard? Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America and the second poorest country in Latin America, after Haïti.
The last evening in Managua, we had a time of prayer that ended with each person praying at the cross and then lighting a candle that symbolized the light of the resurrection: the heart of the Christian faith. As Christians, the hope that we would like to transmit is the hope that is rooted in the resurrection. This hope is not just wishful thinking or human optimism. As Brother Roger put it, “This hope is a path of light that opens up in our depths” (Letter 2003).
From the poorest country of Central America I went to the smallest: El Salvador.
El Salvador may be small but it certainly has lots of energy. When you arrive at the International Airport of El Salvador, everyone is working. It is the most densely populated nation on the American mainland.
Like other countries of Latin American, the 1970’s and 80’s were very violent years. El Salvador experienced twelve years of civil war (1980-1992) during which 75,000 people died. The civil war was fought between the Marxist group, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front and the United States backed Salvadoran Armed Forces.
As you drive through San Salvador, the capital, if you turn on the radio and tune in to the station that is sponsored by the University of Central America, you may sudden hear a very strong and clear voice speaking. Most likely it is the voice of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated at the very beginning of the armed conflict, on March 24, 1980. Mgr Romero was truly a prophetic person who spoke out clearly against the violations of human rights that the people of El Salvador were enduring.
In February 1979, when Brother Roger participated in the meeting of the Latin American Bishops in Puebla, Mexico, he met Mgr Romero. It seems that they spoke at length. Mgr Romero invited Brother Roger to visit him. The visit was planned for December 1979, but was called off because of the difficult situation in El Salvador. Three months later the archbishop was killed as he celebrated the Eucharist. He was buried in the crypt of the Cathedral of San Salvador. It is a must to go and pray there. There are always people praying before the tomb. As I sat there praying, there were groups speaking different languages who came to pay their respects to this man of peace and reconciliation. In 1997, Pope John Paul II named Archbishop Romero “Servant of God”, the first step towards Romero’s beatification and canonization.
Through the years a good number of young adults from El Salvador have been to Taizé. One of the activities planned for my visit was a meeting and a prayer with them. Some already are married and have children. It was wonderful to hear how their time in Taizé had touched their lives; how they had discovered that a future of peace is truly possible. For many the experience of living and listening to other people who are totally different from themselves was an experience of opening ways of reconciliation.
On the last evening a prayer was held in the Chapel of the Martyrs, in the University of Central America (UCA). The civil war ended with the killing of six Jesuit priests at their residence in the grounds of the UCA. Today, there is a garden of roses at the place and they are buried in the Chapel of Martyrs.
As we prayed in this chapel, one of Brother Roger’s prayers came to mind, “Praise be the Holy Spirit, for the women, men, young people and even children who have given their lives for reconciliation and peace.” El Salvador’s recent history has been marked by civil strife and war. Violence is still present today because of the activity of youth gangs. Yet in spite of the violence, there have been people who have given and continue to give their lives for others.
“What is love? Could it be to share the suffering of the most ill-treated? Yes, that’s it. Could it mean having infinite kind-heartedness and forgetting oneself for others, selflessly? Yes, certainly. And again: what does it mean to love? Loving means forgiving, living as people who are reconciled. And reconciliation always brings a springtime to the soul.” Brother Roger: “Unfinished Letter”.
When you ask Guatemalans about their country, they often say that it is the “country of eternal spring”. This is true. Guatemala is mountainous; it has beautiful lakes and valleys and it is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. However this eternal springtime can at times be very violent. In 1998, Guatemala was struck by Hurricane Mitch and last year by Hurricane Stan, when close to 1,500 people died.
Evelyn and Francisco were in Taizé last summer. The department where they live was hit hard by Hurricane Stan. It hit their city, San Marcos, just as they were returning from Taizé. They were not able to reach home for nearly two weeks
I asked to stay with them for most of my time in Guatemala. The journey from Guatemala City to San Marcos was long and arduous. Many of the roads had been damaged and still need repairing. … From San Marcos, we were taken to a gathering of young people in the town of Tacaná, 2,800 meters above sea level, where we were welcomed by a very large group of young people, many of whom were indigenous. Like Bolivia, Guatemala still has a very large indigenous population. The main tribes are the Maya peoples: the Quiché, Mams, and the Pocoman. Many still live in the western highlands of Guatemala. Since the Spaniards kept the indigenous population apart, many of them still practice their traditional customs and wear traditional dress.
In Tacaná the young people were waiting in the church. Many had walked several hours to get to the meeting. The church was decorated with the Taizé Cross and several icons, each one lit by candles. … I was amazed at how quickly they picked up the music and the spirit of the prayer. It astonishes me that we can travel to the other end of the earth and feel such a sense of communion with those who welcome you. Similar gatherings with young people were held in San Marcos and on the Pacific Coast.
Like Nicaragua and El Salvador, Guatemala experienced a civil war. It lasted 36 years and killed up to 200,000 Guatemalans. According to a United States sponsored Truth Commission, 450 Mayan villages were destroyed; over one million Guatemalans became refugees and 90% of human rights violations were committed by the government forces. In a town near San Marcos, which is called El Quiche, all the priests and religious, with one exception, were either killed or had to go into exile. Any type of organized group was suspected of collaborating with the leftist-guerillas. Thus, the number of causalities among those who taught religion or the lay people with some kind of commitment in their local parish was very high.
For true healing to take place in such a situation, one of the more difficult tasks is to speak about what happened. Looking at the truth, even if it is painful, is part of the process of reconciliation. Forgiveness is not the same thing as forgetting, because forgiveness does not deny the mistake, but heals the mistake to such a point that I do not want to go back to that mistake or make that mistake the center of my life. In order to forgive or for a real reconciliation to take place we must recognize the fault.
Seeking reconciliation can cost the lives of many. One of these was Mgr Juan Gerardi, Archbishop of Guatemala City. Mgr Juan Gerardi was asked to lead a Truth Commission sponsored by the Church. A few hours after presenting his report, entitled “Guatemala: nunca más” (Guatemala: never again), Bishop Gerardi, was assassinated.
In spite of its very difficult history, there are many signs of hope in Guatemala. As is often the case, these signs of hope are lived out in situations of great suffering. But they are there. If you visit the Diocesan House of San Marcos you can see how the Christians try to respond and open up ways of peace. The offices of the different diocesan pastoral teams are in the inner courtyard of the House. If you stand in the center, you can see all of the doors which open off the courtyard: the office to defend the human rights of workers, the office for those who have no land, for the women, for youth, a team that tries to recover the historical memory of the people…
The last stop on this pilgrimage was Honduras. It is one of the poorest countries in the Americas. I stayed the capital city, Tegucigalpa. I was welcomed at the major seminary, which is full of seminarians. This was very striking in itself. In Europe, we speak about a crisis in the vocations to the priesthood. In Honduras this is not the case.
Honduras shares many of the problems that most Central American countries face. In downtown Tegucigalpa there is one large boulevard that could easily be found in any city in the United States. All the major supermarkets, restaurants and shopping malls that you find in the USA are right there on this one street. Twenty-five minutes by car from this street, on the hillsides surrounding the city, you find dirt roads, dilapidated houses with no running water or electricity. The gap between the rich and the poor is large and is ever growing.
This gap can be one of the reasons why there is so much violence in the major cities of Central America. This violence makes people to live in constant fear and tension. When you get into someone’s car, immediately you hear the automatic locks shutting all the doors. If you ask why the car windows are tinted the answer is so that no one can see from the outside how many people are in the car. If the youth gangs see you driving alone, you put your life at risk. Your car can easily be “hijacked” in broad daylight and if you resist they can kill you. After a certain hour in the evening, the centre of Tegucigalpa is completely empty. You go at your own risk.
In the face of such violence what can the Church do? How can Christians be a ferment of peace? One way is by bringing relief to those around them who are suffering, especially the women and children. One parish, where we held a gathering of young people from different impoverished neighborhoods, is attempting to do this by offering low cost medical assistance to the families. The clinic is run by religious sisters who are also nurses. There is also a non-profit grocery store which is run by the parishioners.
The challenges facing the countries of Central America are enormous. This summer young people from each of these countries are spending several months in Taizé. It is a privilege to welcome them. We certainly do not have solutions to their problems. But by welcoming them we can sustain them in their hopes for a better future.