Praying for Bishop Álvarez, with Benedict, Van Thuan, and Kung
In recent news, a train derailment in Ohio threatens to spread toxicity throughout the environment.
In recent news, the U.S. government is shooting “spy balloons” and other unknown objects from the sky.
In recent news, religious leaders are still not saying or doing enough to address sexual abuses that have gone on for decades, all over the world, while secular leaders are not talking about abuses that have happened — and are still happening — in public schools and institutions, as though the wounds suffered by secular victims are of a lesser quality, and matter not.
With such stories all about, it’s easy to lose sight of a single story about a single Catholic bishop being imprisoned by a government that has been traveling on corrupted rails for decades.
The story is not just about one bishop, though. In recent news, 222 of his fellow Nicaraguan “political prisoners” have been stripped of their citizenship and deported from their country. Given the number of them who are Catholic priests, seminarians and layfolk, it is not difficult to believe that a commitment to their faith is part of how they fell afoul of the secular authorities. People without a country, they have landed in the United States and are being given assistance — all but one of them, the bishop of Matagalpa, who, now lacking citizenship and sentenced to “a perpetual loss of civic rights” has begun a 26-year prison term.
We are better off not imagining what sort of life Bishop Rolando Álvarez will face without the protection of citizenship or the civil rights that could protect and advocate for his interests.
It is difficult to know exactly how he remained behind. Strange and confusing statements from the Nicaraguan government suggest both that Bishop Álvarez changed his mind about leaving — requesting an oddly timed “meeting” with bishops – and (or) that he wanted to talk to the priests already aboard the plane. Local sources say instead that the bishop had declared, “Let (the others) be free, I will serve their sentence.”
When credible reports cannot be cited, early hagiography is always a suspect thing, yet one cannot but feel that something heroic may truly be happening in the imprisonment of Rolando Álvarez. Perhaps, with Lent approaching, we need to observe the amount of obfuscation surrounding this story and take it as such, if for no other reason than because we know that wherever muddled and conflicting narratives fly, wickedness and the energy of evil is usually afoot.
This story has nudged me to pray for the exiles, but especially for Bishop Álvarez, and to offer fasts of food and small pleasures for his good — for his well-being, his spirit, his fortitude — for his freedom, should God will it. As someone who has certainly challenged bishops over the past few years — urging them to give up (or repurpose) their houses, and to perform penances laying prostrate before the world (I’m still waiting) — it seems only fair that, for a bishop in real trouble, I give up a few things, and perform a few penances, myself, before Lent, through Lent and even after, should this imprisonment continue.
For the bishop’s good, I am inviting the recently departed Pope Benedict XVI to accompany me in this prayer, along with the Venerable Cardinal François-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, of Vietnam, and Shanghai’s Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-mei. Three men who, in varying ways and degrees, knew intimately the pain of being confined or restricted in movement.
For Pope Benedict, who longed to return to Bavaria in retirement but obeyed his successor’s request, that meant an apartment in the Vatican.
For Cardinal Van Thuan, that meant 13 years alone in a damp cell, where he carved a miniscule cross and, using drops of contraband wine along with his rough bread, privately celebrated Mass, which was forbidden.
For Cardinal Kung, it meant 30 years of imprisonment. When offered a chance to renounce his crimes — in a stadium, before tens of thousands — he instead cried out, “Long live Christ the King! Long live the pope!”
We may never know, precisely and credibly, why Bishop Rolando Álvarez was sentenced to exile, or why he is now imprisoned in a mean Nicaraguan cell. It is enough to know that a Catholic bishop has been placed in the middle of something awful.
The crucifix always reminds us that terrible and unjust things must sometimes be permitted, for the sake of future glory. It is good, then, (and necessary) to pray for the bishop with every tool at our disposal. It is good, too, to invite the prayers of those bishops who understand something of his plight.
Elizabeth Scalia is culture editor for OSV News. Follow her on Twitter @theanchoress.