Blessed Oscar Romero once said, “When the church hears the cry of the oppressed it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises.”
The Catholic Church is charged with the mission of proclaiming the Gospel to the ends of the earth, making disciples of all nations. We come together on Sundays to grow in our spiritual lives, worship God together as one body, and open ourselves up to receive his grace to give us the strength to stay on the path to salvation.
But the Gospel is not simply a message of personal sanctification and salvation.
When Karol Wojtyla was just 19 years old, the Nazi army invaded his native Poland. The young man who would grow up to become Pope John Paul II learned firsthand what it was like to live under an oppressive regime. Instead of isolating himself from the problems in his native land, young Karol joined a resistance group that aimed to save the Jewish people from the inhumane evils of the Holocaust.
The Soviets eventually liberated his native land from the Nazi’s, but their rule brought on a new form of oppression for Karol and his Polish brother and sisters. As he moved through the seminary and into the priesthood, he stood strong, promoting Christianity amidst the constant threats of the atheistic government. In one instance, the Soviets tried to prevent him from carrying out a Corpus Christi procession. He resisted and did it anyway.
When he was elected pope, he was determined to utilize his position in the world to continue to push back on oppression of all kinds. On a trip to Poland in 1979, John Paul II gave a speech where he showed absolutely no fear in the face of an oppressive government, and showcased that he fully understood the role of the Church in the world.
The Pope utilized his opportunity during his trip to Poland not only to speak about the love of God and the Church, but also to openly speak about earlier uprisings in Poland and to encourage the people of Poland to stand up against their oppressors and no longer approve of their totalitarian rule.
This changed everything.
The same can be said for the current situation in Nicaragua today.
President Daniel Ortega has been in power for the last 11 years, and recently has begun pushing forward with changes that are a direct attack on the people of the very nation he rules. The President started pressing for changes that would raise taxes while simultaneously cutting social security benefits to some of the most vulnerable in the population.
The proposed changes, coupled with Ortega’s moves throughout his time as President to slowly erode term limits and other limits to his power, set off protests in the country. After just 5 days of protesting, over 30 protestors were killed in the streets by police forces sent out by the President to silence the people.
Enter Auxiliary Bishop Silvio Baez.
At a recent Sunday Mass, Bishop Baez took an opportunity to stand alongside the lines of John Paul II and Oscar Romero as he spoke not only of the Gospel in terms of our spiritual sanctification and salvation, but also as a call to action to save the oppressed here in our present day.
"To denounce and publicly demonstrate against the actions, historic processes, political decisions that go against the great majority is also to love.”
Once again, as has happened all too often in the history of this broken world, the people needed an advocate. And thankfully, the oppressed have an advocate in the Catholic Church.
On April 20, students who were protesting in the streets had to seek sanctuary in a local Church, a parish that was actually taking up a collection to help support the protestors at the very moment the youth came in hoping for refuge. The police approached the parish, but decided to leave without causing further incident.
Later that day Bishop Baez made a public statement against the violence and stood firm on the need for an immediate and peaceful dialogue, offering to have the Church mediate the conversation.
The President responded by agreeing to a dialogue with the business sector of the country, but not the Church and certainly not with the people rising up.
The Bishops did not stop their public witness for the body of Christ. A second statement came out, even more forceful:
"There are social sins that no human being can ignore, but rather must denounce, above all if they desire to restore the violated rights of the most vulnerable: our retirees.”
Shockingly, the President relented and agreed to the dialogue mediated by the Church.
The talks are currently in process and while the outcome of this dialogue is still up in the air, one thing has become very clear: the Catholic Church has a role to play in standing up against oppressive governments and structures that perpetuate inequality against our brothers and sisters.
As members of Christ’s body, we have a role to play as well.
Through our prayers and through our actions, we can join our Church in speaking up for the oppressed. We may not be able to spark dramatic and widespread changes like those set off by Pope John Paul II, Blessed Oscar Romero, or Bishop Baez, but we can make a difference in our communities, our parishes, and our neighborhoods.
Let us pray for our Bishops, that they may continue to find the courage to be the voice of the voiceless in our world. And let us pray for ourselves, that we may do the same.
God, eternal shepherd, you tend your Church in many ways and rule us with love. You have chosen your bishops, to be shepherds of your flock. Give them a spirit of courage and right judgment, a spirit of knowledge and love. By governing with fidelity those entrusted to their care, may they build your Church as a sign of salvation for the world.
Tommy Tighe is a Catholic husband and father of four boys. You can find out more about him at CatholicHipster.com.
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