By Deacon Patrick Moran, Clarion Herald Contributing writer
As my family and I were nearing the completion of our two-year commitment as missionaries to Nicaragua, Bishop Solórzano of the Diocese of Granada asked if we would extend our stay within the diocese.
In consultation with Father Jimmy Jeanfreau, director of the Pontifical Mission Societies office in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, we agreed to stay on.
We began a long-time goal of deepening the ties between Granada and New Orleans by incorporating the Christ the Healer program and its medical, dental and optometry clinics, as well as the annual medical mission trips, under the Caritas (Catholic Charities) organization of the Diocese of Granada.
On April 17, we were making the one-hour drive back home from a national Caritas meeting in Managua to Granada. Everything seemed normal, but at a couple of the roundabouts, we noticed small groups of retirees holding signs, protesting changes to the Social Security system.
Tensions began to rise
We didn’t think too much about it. However, two days later, on April 19, protests began to spread quickly, and we received a message at 11 a.m. that after-school activities at our kids’ Catholic school in Managua would be canceled.
Forty-five minutes later, school officials called again to say they were closing the school, and Ben, 11; Rachel, 10, and Rebecca, 9, would be sent home on a bus.
We prayed. The bus had to take alternate routes to avoid protests and blocked roads, delaying their arrival by an hour or so, but they all got home safely.
While this was all quite disconcerting, we had a medical team slated to arrive from New Orleans on April 21, so we continued working hard on the last-minute preparations, making sure the humble communities that would receive the missionaries were ready, that the medicines were organized, that transportation and food were lined up, etc.
However, by the time we woke up on the morning of April 20, Nicaragua had changed. The peaceful country we had fallen in love with was different. University students had begun peacefully demonstrating in support of the retirees. Overnight, protests turned violent, and more than 60 students were killed or went missing, including Alvaro Conrado, a 15-year-old Loyola Jesuit High School student who was shot at close range while aiding protesters.
As Alvaro’s family sought medical care, they found none, as the public hospitals had orders to refuse care to protesters.
Medical trip canceled
While the medical team in New Orleans made final preparations for their arrival, we did our best to gather available information and explain the reality of the situation on the ground to the Pontifical Mission Societies office, which was forced to cancel a trip that would have begun in less than 24 hours.
The Nicaraguan people, now less concerned about the initial Social Security reforms, wanted justice and began protesting en masse. The response was tragic.
When one family refused to let mobs take up sniper positions against protesters on their corner lot, their house was immediately set on fire, killing six family members, including two children and an infant.
Sandor Dolmus, a young altar boy at the cathedral in Leon who aspired to become a priest, was also killed aiding the protesters. The armed mobs entered a basilica where bishops were meeting to rough them up and intimidate them.
Churches have been attacked and looted, with tabernacles thrown out and trampled upon. To date, an estimated 450 people have died, hundreds more are missing or detained in secret prisons and thousands more have been wounded. All in a small country that has been unable to gather much help on the world stage.
The Catholic Church has spoken out against the violence and continues to stand with the people. What I have personally seen is that the Nicaraguan people carry a hope in Jesus that refuses to be diminished.
During these dark days of violence, Bishop Solórzano organized a eucharistic procession, praying for peace by walking the streets with the Blessed Sacrament. The people turned out in droves to be there, to be with Jesus. They walked the streets of Granada with the Eucharist, praying as they passed areas where days before violence caused the loss of lives.
They left the procession full of hope, having had an encounter with Jesus and the reassurance that he walks with them in their suffering.
From that encounter they were encouraged to continue the work to which they were called, refusing to settle for mediocrity.
One of my favorite quotes from Pope Francis in his apostolic exhortation “On the Call to Holiness” is this: “God wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence.”
This zeal and hunger for God is what I have seen in the souls of the Nicaraguan people. They inspire me with their undying commitment to do what it takes to seek the Lord. I have literally seen them running and riding bikes through plantain trees to make it to Mass.
By any means necessary
Once I saw a humble family of five all piled onto a bike – just one bike – and each had their spot on the frame, with the infant held up by mom on the handlebars.
Despite the poverty, despite the struggles, they’re unwilling to settle for a bland and mediocre existence. They have taught me to have a spiritual thirst, a willingness to run to Jesus as we strive to become saints.
The economic impacts of the conflict have been devastating. A thriving tourist industry has been destroyed as the second-poorest country in our hemisphere is now poorer.
Friends of mine who once provided for the basic needs of their families no longer have a job to do so. I receive messages every week from folks looking to find work of any kind.
Since the violence broke out, my family and I have had to adapt how we serve the mission to which we have been called. It became necessary to evacuate home to Texas to wait and see how the situation would unfold.
We remain here in the United States but are actively involved in coordinating relief efforts and ensuring the success of our ongoing projects. We recently distributed 6,000 pounds of rice and beans through the local parishes to families at risk of going hungry.
While it is not possible right now to live there with our children full time, I do travel to Nicaragua periodically to help maintain the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ strong commitment to Bishop Solórzano and the Diocese of Granada.
Mission goes on
We have a small but dedicated team in the country to coordinate these projects. I recently was in Granada to celebrate the reopening of our dental clinic and medical clinic. Struggling families now once again have access to quality, low-cost health care, including the ability to receive a professional medical evaluation by a physician and medicine for treatment for about $1.50.
Mission must always remain flexible, looking for ways to serve given whatever circumstances present themselves. We change and grow. While our medical mission trips remain on hold for the time being, we have forged stronger bonds with local doctors who can help us carry forward the mission started 25 years ago.
The needs now are greater than ever, but so is the archdiocese’s commitment to our friendship with the Diocese of Granada, always doing what we can to facilitate encounters with Jesus, loving and serving however we can.
Our Nicaraguan friends have blessed us beyond measure, teaching us not settle for a bland or mediocre existence, but to seek Jesus and continue to pursue our own path towards sainthood, one day at a time.
Anyone interested in opportunities to partner with the archdiocese and its mission to Granada is invited to contact the Office of the Pontifical Mission Societies at 527-5771 or http://www.archnomo.org; email, firstname.lastname@example.org.