A Discussion with Alvaro Ramazzini, Bishop of Huehuetenango, Guatemala (Part 1)

With: Álvaro Ramazzini Berkley Center Profile

September 29, 2015

Background: During Msgr. Ramazzini’s long service as a bishop in Guatemala he has engaged with the full agenda of social, economic, and political challenges facing his country. He is renowned as a courageous advocate for poor people, focusing intensively on many issues, including migration, extractive industries, and land tenure. Bishop Ramazzini has contributed over many years to the work of the Berkley Center (interview in January 2009) and WFDD. This discussion with Katherine Marshall took place on September 29, 2015 in Washington D.C., where Msgr. Ramazzini took part in a Berkley Center/WFDD consultation on research on development and religion in Guatemala. In this discussion he traces the path of his work as a bishop in rural Guatemala, discusses interreligious relationships today, and focuses on what he sees as the path ahead. This is a translation of a discussion in Spanish.
“Some Catholics don’t understand that there is a relationship between social commitments and faith.This is an issue above all with middle and upper class Catholics who don’t understand that to be Christian means to follow the path of Jesus Christ. In the rural areas, the people understand this because they live lives of poverty, they want to survive, they want a better way of life.”

Can you remind us about your journey to where you are today? Did you always know that you would become a priest? Of special interest is your current work and your perspectives about how the Church in Guatemala views the nation’s development challenges.

I have been a priest for 43 years, and I’ve been a bishop for 26 years. As a bishop I first served in the diocese of San Marcos, and three years ago I moved to the diocese of Huehuetenango.

I wanted to be a priest, but I wasn’t completely certain until the day I was ordained. Along the journey there are questions and occasional doubts, “Is this my path? Is it not my path?” These include emotional crises, confronting the choice to be celibate or to form a family, etc. But in the end I reached the conclusion that God’s project for my life was to become a priest. What I never thought of and never sought out was to become a bishop. That had not been part of my life plan. I had always wanted to be a parish priest, above all in rural areas, or in Guatemala City, because I grew up there in the city. But in reality I never had the chance to become a parish priest because immediately after I finished my studies I was sent to Rome to study, and then came back to teach. I then served as a professor for several years at the National Seminary.

After several years there, I decided that I wanted to leave this post. I presented my resignation to the Bishops’ Conference (which was in charge of the seminary), and it was accepted. And almost a year later I was named bishop of San Marcos. That was in 1989.

I was in San Marcos for 23 years. Those were years of great learning, learning from the people. I had thought that I knew Guatemala, but when I arrived in San Marcos, I realized that I did not know it at all. I found there an unknown Guatemala within the interior of the country, and I began to get to know it when I became the bishop of San Marcos.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Guatemala City. My father was a peasant, a farmer, and my mother was a housewife. But there was a time when the family fell apart. My parents separated when I was 10 years old; neither of them remarried. There are four children in my family; I have three brothers. Because of the situation of poverty in Guatemala and my parents’ separation, we faced a tough economic crisis in my household. My mother decided to go to the United States in 1963, with my youngest brother. She later brought my other two brothers, who grew up here in the United States. And later still she brought my father, when their relationship had been repaired. But my father did not like that lifestyle. But I stayed in Guatemala.

Thus I was born and grew up in Guatemala City, but I emphasize that my roots are rural. My father was a farmer and always was tied to the countryside.

What was your life like in San Marcos?

I had never expected to be a bishop, and thus had never even imagined what the life of a bishop would be like. I had met several bishops; Monsignor Gerardi, the bishop of Quetzaltenango, for example, had been influential in my life. But I had little concept of what it meant to be a bishop. So for the first three years, from 1989 to 1992, I devoted myself to exploring the diocese.

My purpose was to know the communities by being in direct contact with them. So I visited many of the communities; I would say more than 100 communities. I went to visit them, I slept in the villages, and I ate what the people gave me. I always walked, because at that time in San Marcos there were not many paved roads. I had to go by foot, or by mule, carrying my belongings on my back. I slept wherever there was a place to sleep. That was so that I could get to know the communities. I did that for three years. Then, with a better understanding of the diocese, I had begun to identify different social, cultural, economic, and religious situations that called me to act. And we began to develop a pastoral plan for the diocese. This plan pinpointed the priorities for the parishes and set out areas where we should direct ourselves for the next 10 years in working to resolve these situations. Some were problems, some were positive aspects that could be strengthened, or where we could create new pathways, new ideas, be creative, letting ourselves be led by the Sprit. Because the Spirit would tell us where we should go, so that God could respond at that moment we were living.

We faced a very difficult time in San Marcos during those years. I arrived at a time when the armed conflict was very intense. The first year, during the month of September 1989, there were 19 extra-judicial executions just in San Marcos. As a result I became involved in consoling the victims and going to the military headquarters to ask what had happened. We never got an answer. We saw the guerillas attack and sometimes the army responded. We were living with a population full of fear, under strict military control. But we could do little to change the basic situation and had few answers to give the people as to what was happening and why.

What was your focus during those years in San Marcos?

Social problems demanded the most attention. San Marcos has Guatemala’s largest number of large estates (fincas). In other words, huge areas of land are owned by just one person, dedicated to coffee cultivation. Second, there are also huge areas dedicated to banana growing, where the people live in miserable conditions—starvation wages, inhuman lifestyles. So we started to work to form and build up peasant organizations. Another important topic was training. We wanted to train leaders with a social vision and a vision of faith that would allow real transformations in their lives.

I also saw that the situation of the family presented serious problems. There was a disintegration of the family due in part to migration to the United States, and it was a problem that was growing. There were many young people without work and without access to formal education. So we focused on improving education at the parish and diocese level. We began to think about ways in which we could help the youth to have access to formal education. A dream I never saw fulfilled was to create a technical center for youth but we could not achieve it.

Another of our priorities was health. In San Marcos, there were children who died of measles, children who died of tuberculosis and from diarrhea. So we worked to strengthen the health commission, with two Maryknoll sisters, doctors, who had been in charge of this program before I arrived. We created community pharmacies so people could buy medicines at low cost. We also worked to train health workers on topics like clean drinking water and child health. We worked a lot with women to teach them how to raise their children. We had a parish program for infants to confront the problem of childhood malnutrition. We also started an education program using the radio. Various radio programs in the diocese taught reading and writing at both the primary and basic education levels.

We also worked with migrants, since San Marcos was a major way-station for migrants going north to the United States and many migrants were leaving San Marcos.

And later when so many issues arose with the extractive industries, that was our focus. We learned about the plans for new mines too late, after all the authorizations had been given by the government. We began then to discuss with the people about the benefits and dangers of the extractive industries. We were a strong voice of opposition, and I personally have never agreed with the idea that extractive industries could lift us out of poverty. We have a mining law in Guatemala that is very favorable to transnational companies; they leave almost nothing for us in the country. They hurt the environment, although now there is more corporate social responsibility on the part of one of the mining companies. But we have not been able to bring about any changes in the law, despite efforts to change it. The Congress did not work with us, though we worked for many years on political, religious, and social training.

All this was in addition to the usual parish work—visiting the churches, performing the sacraments, strengthening grassroots communities, orienting the ministry groups: a wide diversity of activities.

How do you find the challenges in Huehuetenango? Are they very different?

No, I have found that the problems are very similar—a lot of poverty, a lot of misery, a lot of migration. Migration from Huehuetenango to the United States goes far back. Many who have come from Huehuetenango have been living in the U.S. for generations, and many have their families here in the United States.

Are the communities in the U.S. focused in any particular locations?

They are in many places, including North Carolina, Florida, Los Angeles, California, and Pennsylvania. They have always gone to the places where they could find work. There are not as many in Texas or in Arizona. They usually went further north. There are many from Huehuetenango in New York, for example.

So my challenge has been to understand this reality, which impacts immigration. But one difference in the diocese of Huehuetenango is that I have needed to strengthen the social ministry of the Huehuetenango diocese. I still feel that it is very weak. I have been there only three years and this is in process. For this the diocese of Huehuetenango is very well organized. There too we have training programs, programs for liturgy, evangelization, and social pastoral programs.

We work a lot with lay people. Just as before in San Marcos, in Huehuetenango the great strength of the Church is the lay people that support us. They receive no payments, but they dedicate their time to the service of the Church. One difference in Huehuetenango is that we worked with the communities, and we did not allow any mining companies to come in.

A central problem in Huehuetenango are hydroelectric projects. There are many rivers that can generate energy, but the communities are not consulted and thus they react, saying, “We don’t want these types of projects.” As a result there has been a lot of conflict, and several leaders are now imprisoned, accused falsely of crimes, because we have a very bad judicial system in Guatemala. Several of them are accused of violent acts and kidnapping, which is not true. We are currently in the process of confronting the administrators of justice, arguing that they are not acting in accordance with the truth. And of course sometimes there is complicity between the companies and the administrators of justice to move these unfair accusations forward.

What has been your role with the Bishops’ Conference on migration?

I was involved with it for many years, left for a few years, but then two years ago I came back. So now I’m in change again of the Migration office of the Bishops’ Conference.

What does that involve?

We are fighting to achieve integrated immigration reform in the United States. We have relationships with a few bishops in the United States, and with the Bishops’ Conference on Refugees here. We also maintain relationships with Mexican Bishops; we denounce the violations that happen to the migrants when they pass through Mexico. We’ve talked with Mexican authorities and asked for protection for the Central American migrants. We also tell our government to implement policies to reintegrate those who have been deported, because when they arrive they have nothing. They don’t know what to do and many try to go back to the U.S. We have three houses—one in Guatemala City, one on the border in Tecun Uman, and one in Izabal. Now we’re also thinking about whether we need to have one in Huehuetenango. And we’re supporting the families. We focus a lot on raising awareness. And I come to the United States as bishop to visit the many communities from Huehuetenango when they invite me. I have come several times.

How does the relationship work with bishops in the United States? Personally? Institutionally?

Both, but mainly institutionally. I am not sure of the name of the current bishops in charge of immigration, but in the past they’ve worked very closely with us—Bishop Charles Wester, who is the bishop of Salt Lake City, and with the bishops from the border areas—from El Paso, Laredo, Tucson. We’re in contact with them above all about the unaccompanied minors. I’ve participated in a few of their meetings, including last year in the United States, about this theme of unaccompanied minors. So we do have relationships. They are aware that this is a grave problem and we feel supported by them.

And what is the situation of the young children who come to the U.S. unaccompanied? We haven’t heard a lot about it this year. Are there fewer now? What is your sense of what is happening?

Right now we don’t have any good data. Last year the U.S. Embassy gave us some data. They came to talk to us to discuss how we could work together. I’m always in support of building bridges, and so we were talking continuously with the authorities from the Consulate, and they were very willing to engage. This year I don’t have the figures, because many of the minors have already found their families that were already in the United States. Now they are waiting to see an immigration judge. Others have already been deported because they couldn’t find their families. So I don’t have any reliable data right now that gives us an overall picture of what is happening.

But what is your sense of how the trends are evolving?

I believe that we still need to give a lot of support to the minors. It is important to stop putting them in the detention centers or the refugee shelters, and instead help them find their families. But the problem is that sometimes the families don’t want to say that they are the relatives of the minors because they are undocumented themselves, so it becomes a vicious cycle.

But is there less pressure to leave Guatemala now?

Currently, I feel that it is somewhat less. Now the summer is over, though, I don’t know what will happen in September or October. Crossing the desert in the summer is dangerous. Generally, In the months of January, February, and March, the numbers of those who set out are higher, and in April and May, they remained the same, but in June, July, and August, the numbers go way down because people know that they can die in the desert. But we will see what happens this month, October, and November.

How do you see the situation in Guatemala, with all of the changes that are happening on the political and social fronts? Do you have hopes? Doubts?

I have hope. I am a man of hope! Of course these two candidates [presidential], like all candidates, have good points and bad points. I won’t bring my own judgment into the discussion. I think at the national level Sandra Torres is better known because she was the wife of former president Colom. She worked on social programs, and this is an advantage for her. The other candidate is not known in rural areas, but is known in urban areas. He is new to politics. Many have criticized him because they say he is a comedian, but as he himself has said, “I am a comedian, but to make people laugh is a profession; it’s not a bad thing.” So they each have their merits.

But we face a difficult situation right now. It is often hard to understand the reactions of the Guatemalan people. For example, in past elections we’ve urged people not to vote for the congressmen who were up for reelection because they had not done anything, but still many of them were reelected. Of 158, only 80 were reelected, and some with charges pending against them. So I ask myself, what is happening with people and what are they thinking?

And the answer?

The answer is to work with young leaders to bring about change. I would like in the next year to work on an initiative to create an institute for young leaders 18 to 24 years old, above all from rural areas but also from urban areas, to start to give them some political training. That is the only way we will be able to move forward.

Can you speak about relationships among different religious traditions and within the Catholic Church? What do you see as major trends that are taking place, for example in relation to current forms of Liberation Theology, Opus Dei, etc.?

In the interior of the country you don’t sense the presence of Opus Dei. They work more in urban areas, like Guatemala City or Quetzaltenango. They have their own line of thought, their mindset. Personally, I don’t share some of their beliefs in their pastoral work, but it is something that is recognized by the Church.

Sometimes we have difficulty with Catholics who don’t understand that there is a relationship between social commitments and faith. This is an issue above all with middle and upper class Catholics. They don’t understand that to be Christian means to follow the path of Jesus Christ. In the rural areas, the people understand this because they live lives of poverty, they want to survive, they want a better way of life. In the case of the dioceses of San Marcos and Huehuetenango, which are the ones I know best, we’ve achieved an integrated pastoral plan and this is the effort we are working on.

There is also the movement that could be characterized as the charismatic renewalist movement, where we’ve been trying to work to educate people to understand that just to sing and to lift your hands, this is not the word of God. The real word of God is to work towards justice, promote peace, and promote development. This is the fight we are working on.

What are the most important religious orders in Guatemala?

It depends on the diocese. In San Marcos, I could say that of the nine religious orders that are there, with the exception of one that is dedicated to education, there have been men and women that are very committed. In Huehuetenango we also have congregations, some from the United States, for example the Charity of Incarnate Word, that are also very committed to working with the elderly and ill. I think that the majority of religious people that work in the interior of the country and in the marginalized zones of Guatemala City are a testament to commitment and to life. In Guatemala City the realities are very different. It’s been many years since I’ve been there, I’m not sure what it’s like anymore, but the religious people that I know that work there are men and women very committed to justice.

There are a lot of different orders working in Guatemala?

Yes, many—more than 25, 30 different orders.

And what is the situation with Protestants, with traditional Protestants, Evangelicals, and Pentecostals?

In Guatemala, the non-Catholic Christian denominations are divided into two large branches—what is called the Evangelical Alliance, which is the most traditional, most conservative, most rigid, most anti-Catholic, most aggressive towards us. They speak a lot of the prosperity gospel, healings, and are involved in the religious spectacle through their mega-churches. This is one branch. The other branch is the Conference of Evangelical Churches, which includes the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians, some Mennonites but not all. It is the more advanced sector of the Protestant Church, with a lot of social commitment. They work with us on social programs, they defend the rights of the poor, they expose injustice to defend rights. There is a big difference.

I would hope that all of the denominations within the Evangelical Alliance, that are now the majority, will little by little change their minds, because they can’t continue to isolate themselves, saying that we are waiting for our reward in heaven, that God will rewards us, or that God will reward us with money. But for now they are not committed to helping the poor. So I hope that they change their ways of thinking and that they become more open towards us. I think that the younger generations of Evangelicals who were born into these denominations will be very different than those that converted from Catholicism to Protestantism. That group obviously wants to defend their reasons for leaving the Church, so clearly you’re not going to hear objective reasons. They have to invent pretexts as to why they feel better now, or that they had problems with alcohol, or that they can now help their family. But the Evangelical "born-agains" have a different attitude, and I hope that it will get better.

Do you see the traditional Mayan organizations as essentially part of the Church?

They are a part of the Church. It’s been a journey of mutual respect, and we have arrived at an understanding of who they are, of their rights, and we respect that. In other words, we used to focus on what we called their customs. Now we don’t use these terms, but instead we try to find ways to meet so that we understand their relationship with God and with us in the more structured Catholic Church. We are trying to build bridges based on respect and dialogue. In this context, I see an important role for the traditional Mayan leaders, the elders, who have a lot of authority from below, from the communities. Oftentimes they have more authority than the mayors.

But there are also formal organizations, with offices and officers; I visited some of them long ago.

Yes, there are. There are also movements that include Catholics, non-Catholic Christians, and traditional Mayan religious leaders. What unites us are the social causes. Each is able to live his/her faith, his/her experience with God as s/he wishes.

In the interreligious group that WFDD worked with around 2000 to 2002, one leader was a Jewish man, quite elderly. Is he still active? Within the group, Jewish members then played a leadership role.

We don’t have contact with them anymore. The Jewish community was very active in the process of peace negotiations. One leader was named Licht. As I mentioned in the meeting, it would be good to understand the status of the Jewish community in Guatemala, because there are multiple synagogues and businesses. It would be good to see what they are doing in development.

Is there still active interreligious dialogue in Guatemala? It seems to me a shame that the idea of working with the peace accords in a religious context did not make much progress. We will follow up.

No. There is a National Ecumenical Council, but it only includes Christians. I think the next step would have to be to open ourselves to the Jewish community. This council includes Catholics and non-Catholic Christians, but just the more advanced branches—Lutherans, Episcopals, etc. It does constructive work, working on a broad agenda. They meet and make statements. The Bishops’ Conference participates in this council.

How active is Religions for Peace now?

I have not heard about them or their work recently but it would be a good idea to find out what they are doing. I know that there was a meeting recently at the Universidad Rafael Landivar about the conflict situation. I don’t know if Miguel van Hoegen [who was involved in the earlier interreligious dialogue] is involved.
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