The Popular Church as Foreign Intervention

FROM 1973 to 1982 I lived in Nicaragua, first as a Maryknoll Sister, then from 1974 on, as the wife of a Nicaraguan Social worker Edgard Macias. Previous to this, I had lived and worked as a Maryknoll Sister for nearly three years in Panama. In both countries I lived in marginated urban areas where there were active base Christian communities, today called “The Popular Church.” My contacts with these communities impressed me with the zeal of both the missioners and their faithful and the profound changes in life-style of Catholic Christians. Maryknoll was very much involved in learning from these communities since the Vatican Council had promoted an intense reflection on the role of religious and missioners. Many Sisters were looking for a concrete way to work amongst the poor in a non- institutional way. Many no longer wanted to live isolated from the people in convents nor did they want to be restrained to work with only the middle and upper classes. The base Christian community gave them a new work role and a new life style which they called “opting for the Church of the Poor”. The religious that I knew and lived with that chose this option are sincere people convinced of the rightness of what they are doing. Nevertheless, I feel that they have consistently denied facing the political consequences of their role and in the long term, this refusal has raised havoc for the Latin Church, the Christian communities and even the future of democracy in Central America.

In Managua in 1970 when I first passed through, on the way to Panama, the Sisters lived in a ramshackle building along the edge of the lake. The area was a slum, populated by squatters who were in the process of being forced to move to out-lying suburbs since the lake waters were rising. The Sisters eventually in 1971, moved with the people to an area outside of Managua called OPEN 3 (National Emergency Operation No. 3), today called Ciudad Sandino. With the people they shared the first eight years with no running water, no electricity, and dust-filled paths that served as streets. The house in Open 3 where I joined them in 1973 was a small wooden house, with plywood divisions, on the main bus route. Amongst the Sisters I lived with was Maura Clarke, an unpretentious, prayerful woman, later murdered in El Salvador. The Sisters were important members of the community, living like the people as much as possible and their work was home visiting, organizing adult study groups and youth groups around a creative liturgy and community action projects. The priests in Open 3 were Spanish Jesuits. Of the six Sisters in the house, three of us worked outside of the community, one in the Archdiocesan catechetical office and two of us in a small private human development institution that did literacy training and community development. This institution was called INPRHU and was founded by several active and non- active members of the Nicaraguan Christian Socialist Party and funded by both Canadian and European Church foundations. INPRHU was utilized by almost all of the Christian groups in the country to train its leaders in group techniques and community development activities. Edgard, who became my husband, was Director of Programs and was specialized in training others in the Paulo Freire method. Amongst his students were Fernando Cardenal, later director of the Sandinista Literacy Program and Ernesto Cardenal and his Solentiname community. I learned much in INPHRU, but what most impressed me during this time was the level of commitment of individual Nicaraguans to work for change in their country because of their Christian beliefs. The base Christian communities that NPRHU worked with were facing the challenge at this time of inevitable political involvement and confrontation as a result of acting on their desire for justice. Within Maryknoll, the Sisters were adamant that their role was not political. And yet we found ourselves visiting the jails where parishioners were being held because they had been organizing protests over the lack of drinking water. We went with groups of peasants to trials where individuals were being jailed because of their attempts to obtain land titles. And we were attending the funerals and comforting the survivors of men killed because they were community leaders. The members of the base Christian communities were finding that it was impossible to analyze the lack of justice in Nicaragua without coming to the “political” conclusion that the Somoza regime had institutionalized human-rights violations and injustice. Still, the religious denied that they were “political.” I do not feel that this conflict was ever resolved.

The Sisters and priests continued to hold study groups, community meetings and seminars. They would emphasize the need to live a Christian life-style with emphasis on moral changes (one wife, one family, good relations with one’s neighbor etc.) while the people in the community were affirming the need for institutional changes. The youth especially did not have the patience for the endless meetings with government officials to obtain basic human needs like running water, electricity, and adequate transportation. More and more priests would come to report that members of their community were joining the guerrillas in the mountains. Most, like Fernando Cardenal, admired these youths and said, “What else is there?”

Edgard expressed his frustration to me at this time. The same Church groups that allowed INPRHU to train their members in group dynamics and community organization, refused to allow him to speak of political alternatives. In fact, in one Paulo Freire session in Esteli, a departmental city, a North American priest became furious with the INPHRU trainers because one of the motivational drawings to be analyzed depicted a political manifestation. According to the priest, this was “politicizing” his people and putting them in danger. Nevertheless, these same religious were allowing Marxist University students to organize seminars, organize manifestations, and hand out their literature. And the Marxist were actively recruiting the Christian faithful as couriers, guerrillas, and for safe houses. The only difference between the tactics of Edgard’s Party and the Marxists was openness. Edgard admitted that he belonged to a political ‘ party and that he had been an anti-Somoza activist for years. The University students never admitted that they belonged to a political party and they talked only of being for Justice. Perhaps one of the greatest irritants for Edgard was the fact that the majority of the religious making these decisions were not Nicaraguans.

With this as a background, it is not surprising that between 1974-1979 the base Christian communities became the mainstay of active opposition to Somoza. One example is Open 3 where during the final insurrection, there was little direct fighting because the national guard was afraid to enter the community, such was the level of anti-Somoza feeling. The Marxists understood the poWer of the Church and from 1974 on they called on the services of the Archbishop, Obando y Bravo, to mediate for them. They became adept in using the language of Liberation Theology and depicting Jesus Christ as a guerrilla fighter. They also encouraged the foreign clergy and religious to lobby and organize outside of Nicaragua against Somoza.

Today in 1983, little has changed. The FSLN continues to cultivate the base Christian communities and call them “the good Christians”. But the FSLN has turned against Archbishop Obando, calling him an anti-Christ, because he has challenged their human rights violations and their systematic elimination of the political opposition. The Maryknoll Community continues to support the revolution without distinguishing between a process and a Party and its Ideology. Several Sisters have expressed concern to me because of the “errors” of the revolution, while refusing to believe that they are systematic and ordered by the National Directorate. This personally affected me when the FSLN orchestrated a campaign against Edgard and myself, including death threats, that resulted in our seeking asylum in 1982.

It is painful for me, as a North American, one who has lived for nearly ten years with a Nicaraguan dedicated to Democracy and Christian principles, to see other North American Christians continue to influence the members of the base Christian communities to be patient, to be trusting. They also continue to lobby and organize outside of Nicaragua in support of the FSLN. It has convinced me that their leadership is politically ignorant, criminally naive, and has a negative effect on the Nicaraguan people. Once again, I am impressed by the individual Nicaraguans whose commitment to change has forced them to once again arm themselves to fight oppression and dictatorship, this time without the tacit approval of their foreign religious leaders. Most of the rebels presently fighting the FSLN regime are Christians whose formation through the Churches has inevitably led them to a level of consciousness that impels them to fight for justice and peace. If the religious leaders of the Popular Church were really honest they would listen to the Nicaraguan Church and Christian lay leaders, and not impose their ideas of political solutions by ignoring the fact that there are other alternatives, that the Revolution has been betrayed, and that it is precisely the formation given in the base Christian community that has led men and women to risk their lives to struggle again for a new Nicaragua.


At the time this article was written, Geraldine O'Leary de Macias lived in Washington, D.C.

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