Costa Rica, The Catholic Church in
COSTA RICA, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
The Central American Republic of Costa Rica is bound on the north by Nicaragua, on the east by the Caribbean Sea and Panama, and on the south and west by the Pacific Ocean. Encompassing the mountainous plateau region of the Continental Divide, the country is separated by a stretch of volcanic mountains into two fertile lowland regions with extensive coastlines. One of the few Central American nations to sustain long-term political stability, Costa Rica has developed a successful tourist industry to supplement an agricultural economy buoyed by its acclaimed coffee plantations and its banana and cocoa crops. Costa Ricans, who are predominately of European heritage, benefit from widespread employment opportunities and numerous social welfare programs. However along with increasing international traffic due to tourism has come problems with illegal drugs; in the 1990s Costa Rica became a transfer point for heroin and cocaine shipments from South America.
Early Christianization. The earliest appearance of the Christian religion in Costa Rica dates back to the
fourth and final voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1502. Traveling with Columbus, Fray Alejandre was the first priest to set foot on the continent. After 1508, Christianity slowly spread along the coasts of the Pacific. The first diocese erected on the Central American isthmus was Nuestra Señora de Santa María de la Antigua del Darién (1513), with Franciscan Juan de Quevedo appointed bishop. Gil González Dávila and Diego de Agüero were the first to enter the area that would one day become Costa Rica and Nicaragua; their catechizing activity led to the baptism of 32,264 souls between 1522 and 1524. In 1526 the iconoclastic priest Diego de Escobar celebrated his first Holy Week in the New World with great pomp on the island of Chira. Because of his zeal in destroying the native idols, he created an animosity toward Christians that made later evangelizing difficult.
The establishment of the Diocese of León de Nicaragua, which included both Nicaragua and Costa Rica, heralded more peaceful times, and several churches were erected in the region. In 1550 Pedro de betanzos arrived in Costa Rica with two priests and was joined later by Lorenzo de Bienvenida. In 1560 Juan de Estrada Rávago founded the first churches on the Caribbean coast at Corotapa and Suerre. The consolidation and expansion of the faith in Costa Rica occurred after an embassy including Father Lorenzo traveled to Spain in 1565 to ask Philip II to aid in their missionary efforts.
In 1581 the zeal and bravery with which the early priests penetrated the hostile regions—usually with no more arms than a crucifix—produced the first martyr of Costa Rica, Juan Pizarro. Displeased by Pizarro's public admonishment because of his tribe's reversion to Dionysiac excesses, the Christianized chief Alonso de Alfaro ordered Pizzaro's death by flogging.
In 1564 Juan Vásquez de Coronado and a group of settlers founded the city of Cartago, their European populations replacing native populations killed by diseases to which they had no resistance. Other conquistadores and priests entered the territory of Talamanca, south-east of Costa Rica, lured by rumors of rich gold deposits and the great concentration of natives there. Unlike the events surrounding the establishment of Cartago, the city of Santiago
de Talamanca, founded in 1605, was later destroyed by the natives, its inhabitants massacred. Rodrigo Arias Maldonado y Velazco (later known as Fray Rodrigo de la Cruz, cofounder of the Bethlehemites in Guatemala) and many others failed in their attempts to civilize these natives. However, as several Spanish icons became associated with circumstances considered miraculous by the native populations, evangelical efforts found increasing favor. In 1666, for example, natives attributed the departure of a group of marauding pirates to the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, a century-old carved statue. The image was carried on a litter and the Mother of God invoked as a protectress as preparations were made to combat the invaders; she eventually became known as the Virgin of the Rescue. In 2000 a pilgrimage was made to Cartago, the city where Costa Rica's patron saint, the Virgin de los Angeles, once appeared, to pray that increasing frequent outbreaks of violent crime would end.
Consolidation and Organization. During the 17th and 18th centuries the real development of Costa Rica, both civil and ecclesiastical, began. Brotherhoods, religious associations and primary parochial schools were increased and consolidated. Renewed missionary visits to Talamanca Christianized almost all the natives, many of whom relocated to missions in the interior. Churches in the parishes of Nicoya, Orosi and Cartago acquired valuable ornaments and objects of gold and silver, some of them exquisitely made. Church architecture, however, remained modest.
In October of 1821 news reached Costa Rica of the region's bloodless political separation from Spain. Joining the Mexican Empire for a few years, it was eventually awarded independence in 1838. Political autonomy brought no noticeable changes with respect to the Church until 1850 when the bishopric of San José was created, independent of the Diocese of Nicaragua, which had governed Costa Rica for 319 years. The first bishop of San José was Anselmo Llorente y Lafuente, a native of Cartago, who defended with tenacity the ecclesiastical rights of the Church. After his death in 1871, the see remained vacant until the 1880 appointment of the German priest Bernardo Augusto thiel. Thiel founded the Mensajero del Clero, made various visits to native groups whose language and customs he studied, and made valuable historical investigations. He was succeeded in 1901 by another German priest, Gaspar Stock, who continued the activities of his predecessor.
The Modern Church. The Bishopric of San José was elevated to an archdiocese in 1921. By mid-century Costa Ricans were considered strongly religious, and the
relations between Church and State were harmonious. Title VI of the modern constitution of Costa Rica, dated Nov. 7, 1948, made the Roman Catholic faith the country's national religion, adding that government would refrain from "impeding within the Republic the free exercise of other cults that do not oppose universal morality or good customs." Although political tensions grew during the 1970s due to economic problems, the nation managed to retain a democratic government which continued to value religion. By 2000 the country contained 241 parishes, with 510 secular and 236 religious priests, 46 brothers and 923 sisters administering to its predominately Roman Catholic population. In addition, the region's first Catholic television station, Telefides, proved successful in uniting Catholic families after its inception in 1996.
At the turn of the 21st century, because of its relative affluence Costa Rica faced problems more in line with technologically advanced European nations than with its Central American neighbors. The strong opposition given by the nation's bishops to the adoption of in vitro fertilization procedures in 1997 was a major factor in at least one government agency's recommendation not to legalize such procedures. However, in 1999 equally vocal Church opposition to the legalization of sterilization procedures could not stop passage of such laws by an increasingly liberal government. Another symptom of modern times—an ever-increasing divorce rate—caused one member of the church hierarchy to comment on Costa Rica's "discard-after-use culture," while concerns were also aired over the sudden decline in church weddings in favor of civil marriage ceremonies that could more easily be undone.
Bibliography: v. sanabria martÍnez, Episcopologio de la diócesis de Nicaragua y Costa Rica, 1531–1850 (San José 1943); Documenta historica Beatae Virginis Angelorum (San José 1945); Anselmo Llorente y Lafuente (San José 1933). r. blanco, Historia eclesiástica de Costa Rica, 1502–1850 (San José 1960). m. de lines and j. a. line, Costa Rica: Monumentos históricos y arqueológicos (Mexico City 1964).
[j. a. lines/eds.]