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Interview with Cardinal Oscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga

February 24, 2001

Journalists: Richard Boudreaux of the Los Angeles Times, Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times, Robert Blair Kaiser of Newsweek, John Thavis of the Catholic News Service and John L. Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter.

Rodriguez: First of all you have to forgive me if some words do not come immediately. I don’t speak perfect English.

Question: Where did you learn English?

R: In the States, but only in a semester. I spent one semester in the United States when I was a seminarian in Newton, N.J., with the Salesians.  So that’s my school.

Q: Do you get back to the United States often?

R: Not very often, when we have meetings. When I was in CELAM we had inter-American meetings that would take me there.

Q: You have a pilot’s license?

R: I never had it, but I love flying. I learned English reading aviation books. I wanted to be a pilot but I didn’t have the time because I entered the seminary when I was 16 and at that time it was not allowed. But I still fly a little.

Q: Is it true that you know the president [of Honduras] quite well?

R: This president? No, he’s younger. But I have good relations with them because we in our episcopal conference say what we have to say with great freedom, and through dialogue it’s a good relationship.

Q: Some say you are the greatest moral authority in your country. In 1997 the parliament asked you to take charge of the police force.

R: We had many years with military governments, with dictatorships. When we came back to democracy there was still a great influence of the military in our government. In 1993 when I became an archbishop there was a terrible crime. One of the victims survived and he declared that the secret police had been the author of these crimes. There was a great commotion in our nation and nobody believed anybody. So the president asked me to lead a commission in order to relieve all these anxieties of our people. I accepted after consulting the Vatican. In 15 days we were all clear, members of the commission, that it was necessary to abolish the secret police. We asked the president to do so. After that came a very difficult process of transforming a military police into a civil police. It took four years. In 1997, I was in Houston because I had a surgery. The next day I went to a parish because I was to say Mass, and I saw in the newspapers that I had been appointed chief of police! I said this is impossible, I called back. But it means that people trust very much in the church because they see that we are not interested in power or in money but only in the common good. This has been difficult in all of Latin America, but in Central America this has been our line because we have had so much social injustice that it is necessary to work hard for the common good.

Q: Are there other countries where the church can play more of a role?

R: I think that it is necessary to look for the common good and for social justice. In many countries poverty is so big, and injustice. I am quite clear that justice is the agenda for the 21st century in all our countries of Latin America. Many times justice comes only for people who are rich. The poor have no right to have justice. That is why we are always talking, trying to shape public opinion in favor of a better system of justice.  I remember when I was president of CELAM in Santiago, Chile, we had a meeting around the theme of corruption. I always talk about corruption as a cancer. The political system is so ill that many politicians go into politics not in order to work for the common good or to arrive at power in order to serve the people but in order to be rich, as soon as possible. They look to the state as a source of booty. They love to invest during the political campaign in order to get the revenues during the government. This is an illness in all the regions. This is why we can’t make progress in development. It’s one of the most difficult challenges the church faces in Latin America at the beginning of the century. But I am convinced that through dialogue and through work we will achieve a change. It is necessary to change the culture, because this political culture is ill. We need something different.

Q: How will it happen?

R: I say that we are almost all democracies, but only very weak democracies. You cannot have democracy without democrats. Democrats are not born with us, you have to be educated to be a democrat. Even in the family when the father and the mother teach the children to dialogue among themselves, we are educating future democrats. It happens in school, in the workplace, everywhere. We need to educate ourselves to be democrats. This is lacking in our nations. We that have Indian blood in our veins have the temptation to be chiefs. Many times when you have a layman that is given a small part of authority, he becomes a chief. When you have a pastor in a parish, he says, ‘In my parish I am the one who commands.’ This is very frequent, and that’s not the way to build democracy.”

Q: Is the press a factor in creating democracy?

R: I believe so, yes. I am very, very enthusiastic about the media because these are the tools of the 21st century. You cannot face the challenges of a new century with the tools of the Middle Ages. It is clear. We have to be present in the media. The media has a role, not only to inform, but also to educate in democracy. This is a very complicated task but I believe it is very possible to advance.

Q: Does the press in Honduras hold the government accountable?

R: We have a good level of press freedom, even if at a certain level many times it does not respect the dignity of many persons. It would be desirable that they could respect more. But there’s total freedom. Even during the military times there was freedom, this is very important.

Q: What was the lasting impact of liberation theology in Latin America?

R: The organization of the people, the participation of the laity, the option for the poor, and also the social concern. I remember in 1979 when I began to be a bishop it was very, very difficult to talk about the role of the social doctrine of the church. In those times, I remember it well, even the name was suspicious: ‘social’ doctrine. Now it’s one of the most powerful tools for development. This has been a good thing. In 1986, when the commission of justice and peace gave a document on the moral dimension of the problem of external debt, everyone said, ‘What do priests know about economics?’ and the document was almost ignored. In 1994, when the pope wrote Tertio Millenio Advenient, and he wrote there that in the perspective of the Jubilee Year it was necessary to alleviate or to cancel the international debt, what a big way. From 1994 to 2000, when I was in Cologne giving Chancellor Schroeder 17 million signatures in order to ask for the alleviation of the debt, or pardon of the debt, we’ve come a long way. I am convinced that through the social doctrine of the church many of the great lines of liberation theology now have rights of citizenship in the church.

Q: On balance, liberation theology was a good thing?

R: I would say that we cannot talk of one liberation theology. There were many, many different currents. But I know that looking in perspective, and putting aside the armed violence that provoked many, many deaths, it has left many good things, many good things.

Q: Will you be at the October synod of bishops?

R: I don’t think so.

Q: Some hope that this synod will take up Cardinal Martini’s idea of a new council, or some kind of worldwide meeting to discuss the issues facing the church.

R: I don’t think that’s a crazy idea. I think it’s very possible, but I think the time has not yet arrived [for a new council]. In Latin America, Vatican II is still to be implemented. It takes time. I teach in our seminary, because I love to teach, it’s my vocation. When I first meet the seminarians, I always ask them to raise their hands if they have read all the documents of Vatican II. Many never have. I say, okay, you’re 35 years late. If this is true of seminarians and priests, what about the laity? In many of our countries there is no money to buy books. Even in my countries, books have taxes because they are considered luxury items. This is stupid. How can people know the documents, learn the documents, and implement the documents? I believe it will take time. Pope John Paul II has given great impulses to Vatican II, but there is still more to come. An international gathering around these themes is very important. I believe that maybe the next consistory … the pope is calling us for a consistory in May. This next consistory will try to answer this question. I have many, many questions that I believe are important. First of all, the continuing education of people in the faith. You know that we have people that only have education until first communion, and then never again hear anything about the faith. Others are educated only for confirmation.   In these modern times, when you have master’s degrees here and there, and you are not prepared in your faith, what happens? You lose your faith. The faith of an infant cannot support the life of an adult. This is a great challenge - how to provoke in the faithful this necessity of having a mastery of the faith. The consequence is that you have a divorce, what Paul VI called a divorce between faith and life. Life goes one way, faith stays in the temple. We need a synthesis in order to have the evangelization of politics. For me it’s very difficult. What happens to the politicians of Latin America? Maybe they are faithful, but when they enter the party or they enter the government, faith goes to the closet and remains there. Maybe when they’re out and without any post in the government they will come back to the church. This is a real problem. What happens to all this effort of the church to prepare the social conscience of the people when they just leave the faith behind? This kind of effort is a great challenge of the 21st century. There are many, many more. Increasing poverty, for instance. We are never going to have peace as long as poverty in increasing. You have violence in the cities that is growing everywhere. We have kidnapping as an industry in Latin America - in Guatemala, in El Salvador, in Honduras, in Colombia. It’s awful. There are even different rates for different people. If you kidnap a poor person, there’s a low rate, for example. It’s very painful. In Guatemala I know of cases that they kidnap a baby when the mother enters the supermarket. They tell her that to have it back she needs to buy this and that and that. The poor mother is buying in the supermarket to give it to the criminals to get her baby back. This is happening, in part poverty is growing so much. People become violent to survive. This is another kind of great challenge.

Q: What will be on the agenda of this May consistory the pope intends to call?

R: The agenda will be the new document of the pope that he signed Jan. 6 closing the holy door, Novo Millennio Ineunte. That will be the agenda, how to implement that document.

Q: Do you know how long the meeting will last?

R: I believe it’s usually three or four days. It wouldn’t be much more than that unless it’s a synod or a council.

Q: What can you do in three days?

R: We have to be prepared. When you come you have your ideas summarized and ready to be shared and discussed. Most of the time is taken up in discussion of the ideas that are presented.

Q: What priorities would you like to see discussed?

R: This is what I have been saying. The church has to think not only for the problems inside, but also how to be what the pope said Novo Millennio Ineunte, how to sail into the deep sea rather than just remaining in your port.

Q: When you talk to European cardinals one of the things they emphasize is ecumenism. Does that apply in Latin America? It seems that the problem has been evangelization by Protestants. People weren’t talking about ecumenism.

R: Well you know it’s very difficult. It’s very difficult because we do not have the historic churches [in the same way as Europe]. I feel very good about the historic churches we have. They are open, we have a good relationship. When I became an archbishop in 1993 in my homily I invited the different denominations to have a dialogue. The next day I got a response from many of these new denominations that said we’re not interested in that.

Q: Would most of the new denominations be Pentecostal?

R: Yes, mostly that. The problem is that for some of these denominations it has become like a religious industry. This is the problem. If there is an unemployed person, he can start a church tomorrow, improvising that in a garage without any doctrine or any preparation. I know a dentist who is now himself a pastor. He looks at videotapes of Jimmy Swaggart and imitates his style, even the way he carries the Bible. The saddest part is that people are responding to them. … What the customers are asking, they give. On the other hand, they do not have parishes to organize, they do not have priests to deal with, they do not have any seminaries to support, nothing. They are their church.

Q: And they take a hundred percent of their collection.

R: This is the other part, the ten percent, the tithing. The common denominator of all of them is the tithing. It’s a good deal, because they don’t have taxes to pay, and nobody asks for an account. When the bishop goes to visit the parishes, we have to meet with the economic council to see all the accounts, the books and the balances and everything, because it’s our duty. But they do not have that. They do not have authority to obey. They can discuss what is their doctrine and they define it, so this is a problem. Now there are a lot of churches that are locally born. But I’m convinced that ecumenism is on the agenda of the 21st century and I will continue even if am fought, even if they are against me, I don’t care. I will continue trying to look for ecumenism.

Q: You mean specifically with the Pentecostals?

R: Yes. Some of them say that ecumenism comes from the devil. They say it openly. But it’s necessary to try. Through education I believe we can slowly but steadily arrive at some results.

Q: The defenders of these churches say that they appeal to a strong sense of personal morality in people, for example that people will join these churches and stop drinking.

R: You’re right.

Q: Are the people produced by these churches who go into politics cleaner politicians?

R: The great majority say they do not go into politics because politics is dirty. But we saw the case of the former president in Guatemala, Rios Mott. I recall that he came to Honduras, he was invited by one of these groups, and he said, ‘People say that politics is dirty, I say come and help me to clean it.’ He said it and it was a beautiful idea. Maybe eight months later he was deposed by a coup because he was stealing. Now he lives in Panama as an entrepreneur with the money he stole.

 Q: Is that the rule with Pentecostals who go into politics?

R: It was an exception, because many of them don’t like politics. On the other hand, there are many people from these small groups that want to form a political party of their own. In the past months in Honduras we’ve had one attempt to do that. One of the pre-candidates was preaching, he said he was a pastor. The intention was to form - I wouldn’t say Protestant, because they’re not Protestants - but a Protestant political party. This is a temptation for many of them. Now they are looking to the political process.

Q: First World bishops and cardinals often talk about collegiality, the need to decentralize. Do you share that? Or do these internal church debates, in light of debt and Hurricane Mitch and all your other problems, seem peripheral?

R: I would say that many of the problems of the First World are not ours. We have to deal in the trenches. But on the other hand, I am a member of a universal church and I have a responsibility also for the whole church. I am convinced that it is necessary to continue growing in collegiality. The message the pope addressed to us in the Jubilee for bishops in October was in that sense. In the homily that he addressed to us [Feb. 22, when new cardinals received their rings] he emphasized that. Now, with the consistory being so near in May, it’s also in that direction. I’m convinced that the pope has that idea. All of us are convinced that it is necessary to grow in collegiality.  The Synod for America emphasized the necessity to have one America, not only North America and the rest, but to emphasize that we are one. I have seen the results. For instance, after Mitch, the bishops of the Texas said we have to share with the bishops of Honduras, and a fraternal relationship started. It’s not only a matter that the south is coming to beg for money. It’s a totally different perspective. It’s now sharing a two-way highway. They come to us, they share our life. We have a strong lay movement called the “delegates of the word.”   They are the ones who lead the celebrations on Sunday in the majority of our small villages because we have very few priests. But these people are trained, they work hard, the preach, they read the readings and lead the prayers. Some of them are extraordinary ministers of communion. We have this characteristic. They [the U.S. bishops] know that experience, they go back to Texas and try to think about that. We have started Spanish courses for seminarians who would like to live in our parishes and know the culture, to be more prepared. We are aware that we have a responsibility to help with the evangelization of Hispanics. We are sending migrants, and who’s going to take care of them? This is the other aspect of these kind of relationships and I believe it’s growing.

Q: Collegiality can sound very theoretical. Can you given an example of a lack of collegiality that has affected you?

R: Instead of a lack, I can tell you the positive things. In CELAM we know each other, so for us we are not closed in our problems and dioceses. The bishops’ conferences are living ones. So we meet, we discuss, we are brothers. We can also correct one another. This is beautiful. There is a different spirit. These are concrete aspects of collegiality. In Central America we have a small secretariat for all the bishops, SEDAC. It was established before CELAM by an archbishop of San Salvador and a bishop of Costa Rica. It still continues. We share many of our problems. For instance, in recent days there was a problem between Nicaragua and Honduras. The chief of the armed forces in Nicaragua said that Honduras is in an arms race. This is totally false. I can tell you that our army is decreasing every year, because now we have voluntary military service. This was a good idea of President [Carlos Roberto] Reina, because the army had been the real power in Honduras. When they changed the law … this was the starting point of change. Then they abolished the post of chief of the armed forces, and now the defense minister is a civilian. This is good, so it is totally false that Honduras is in an arms race. I had the opportunity to talk to Cardinal [Miguel] Obando [of Managua] and to say, listen, you will come to visit Honduras and I will take you everywhere and you can see. So we communicate and we can avoid many problems.

Q: Aren’t there some times when the Vatican gets in the way?

R: In general, the ocean is very big. So we have a great feeling of freedom.

Q: How collegial are you with your own people?

R: It’s not good for me to say it, but maybe you saw during these days.

Q: Juan Puablo the Third is what we saw.

R: We are very near to our people, because we are not complicated. I have this uniform because it is necessary to wear it. But it will not be a wall between the people and myself. I am the same and will continue to be the same.

Q: Do you have advisory boards in the archdiocese?

R: Yes we do. We have a pastoral council, we’ve got a presbyteral council, we have the episcopal conference.

Q: Including lay people?

R: Yes. The majority of our church is lay. We don’t have more than 400 priests in the whole nation in seven dioceses. The majority is lay people, including many women. We have no problems at all working with laity.

Q: What does this say about the future of the priesthood in Latin America?

R: We still need it, and very strongly. We have the participation of the laity, but wherever I go I hear this petition: ‘Please send us a priest.’ The role of the priest is necessary like the engine in the car, to animate the rest of the parts to form unity. Because of this I believe vocations are increasing in Latin America. Honduras was very difficult. In 1821, when the independence came, there was only one bishop and 15 priests in Honduras. Now this year we have 125 seminarians. It’s not growing like in the past because there were children in the fields that never had the opportunity to study, who said, ‘I need a scholarship so I will say I have a vocation and go to the seminary.’ Now they are motivated. We are starting to have vocations coming from the high schools or the universities.

Q: Is that a long-term solution or will the church have to make changes in the way it ministers?

R: As I told you, we have only 400 priests but we have 15,000 delegates of the word, men and women.

Q: Does it bother you that so many people are talking about you as a possible pope?

R: No, it makes me laugh. I know this is only a good wish. I know that when the time comes, the Holy Spirit is the one that is going to act. So I am not concerned about that.

Q: Do you think the Holy Spirit will animate all the Latin Americans in the same way, as a bloc?

R: Who knows? That would be a good sign of collegiality, a way to put it into practice! But I don’t know.

National Catholic Reporter, Posted March 2, 2001