Guatemala, The Catholic Church in
GUATEMALA, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN
The Central American Republic of Guatemala borders the North Pacific Ocean on its south, Mexico on its west and north, and Belize, the Caribbean, Honduras and El Salvador on its east. A mountainous region prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, Guatemala derives a quarter of its wealth from coffee, sugar and bananas, and agriculture employs half its labor force. Natural resources include petroleum deposits, fish, chicle, and rare woods
from the country's many forests. A poor country where scarcely more than half the adults are literate, Guatemala's government has waged an ongoing battle against drug trafficking. More than half of all Guatemalans are Mestizo (Amerindian-Spanish), with the remainder predominately Amerindian.
Colonization and Early Christianization. Prior to the coming of the Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century, Guatemala was home to great Mayan cities such as Tikal, Piedras Negras, Uaxactún and Zacualpa. Spaniard Pedro de Alvarado founded the city of Santiago de los Caballeros on July 25, 1524. With Alvarado came the first missionaries: Augustinians, Mercedarians, Franciscans, Dominicans and Jesuits all contributed to the evangelization of the Mayan natives and the fostering of Western culture through schools of various types. Among the early missionaries were Juan Torres, who wrote a catechism in Quitché; Francisco Pontaza, who prepared one in Kakchiquel; Juan Godínez, author of catechisms in both Indian languages; Francisco Parra, who in preparing catechetical material invented five characters not in the
European alphabet to express Indian sounds; and Pedro de betanzos.
Calling it the "Audiencia," Guatemala's Spanish conquerors transformed the region into a powerful political entity, and it served as a high court for Spain's American outposts. It was also the scene of a special missionary effort by the Dominicans. The Province of Tezulutlán was called the "land of war" because of the ferocity of its unconquered inhabitants. A group headed by Bartolomé de las casas including Rodrigo de Ladrada, Pedro de Angulo, Luis Cáncer and Domingo Antonio de Vico composed poems in the native language telling the biblical accounts of the creation of the world, the life of Jesus and the Redemption, and put them to simple music. These songs were spread by Christian peddlers. The four friars had great success with such methods. An episcopal see was erected in Verapaz in 1599, but it was suppressed in 1607. The missions nevertheless continued in the charge of the Dominicans.
Ecclesiastical Organization. A diocese was erected in Guatemala in 1534, and it was raised to an archdiocese in 1743. The last bishop and the first archbishop was the Peruvian Pedro Pardo de Figueroa, a patron of arts and cultural activities. De Figueroa built the church of Santo Cristo de Esquipulas, which would become a center of pilgrimage for Central America and southern Mexico. This shrine has been erected as a prelature nullius in the charge of the Benedictines of North America.
Spanish missionaries and the Church hierarchy firmly reshaped social and family life around Catholicism. Their efforts fostered vocations among men and women of all social classes, gradually enabling the orders and the seminaries to replace those who had come from Spain. The Church also fostered scholarship. Pedro de Lievana, dean of the cathedral at the time of Bishop marroquÍn, founded the first literary academy in the Americas, with the assistance of Eugenio de Salazar y Alarcón. Chroniclers and linguists included Antonio remesal, Francisco vÁzquez, Rafael de Landívar y Caballero, Francisco Ximenez and Bachiller Domingo de Juarros. Juarros' History of the Kingdom of Guatemala was translated into English and frequently consulted by historians. Scholars of the late colonial period were philosophers Pedro de Zapiain and Miguel Francesch; scientist José Antonio Liendo y Goicoechea; and educator, poet and social writer Matías de cÓrdova.
Church and State in Modern Guatemala. In 1821 Guatemala gained independence from Spain and went on to join the short-lived United Provinces of Central America. In 1839 it declared itself an independent republic. In 1853 the country's democratic government signed a concordat with the Holy See. However, the liberal revolution of 1870, led by García Granados and Justo Rufino Barrios, repudiated the concordat, suppressed the religious orders, took possession of all their property and of the seminary, exiled priests and religious, closed the Catholic schools, established civil marriage and divorce, secularized cemeteries and schools, separated the Church from the State and persecuted Catholics. The churches were left without funds and the faithful, without the Sacraments. Protestant evangelicals took advantage of the situation and spread especially among the poorest classes; they continued to make inroads even into the 21st century, albeit within an atmosphere of increased toleration.
In 1951 a liberal government took power, and the Church was allowed to regain independence. Diplomatic relations were eventually resumed with the Holy See. However, the left-wing government was able to enact few reforms under pressure from entrenched conservative powers. For the next three and a half decades the country witnessed continued political upheaval, including guerilla violence, military intervention, manipulation by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and numerous government-sponsored human rights violations. The church spoke out constantly against abuses, and was active in efforts to mediate an end to years of civil war. On Dec. 29, 1996 Guatemala achieved peace through a new government, and efforts to rebuild the country's floundering economic base were achieving success by 2000.
During 36 years of civil war, it was estimated that over 140,000 Guatemalans lost their lives through violence, while another 50,000 were listed among the "dissappeared". In an effort to document that violence, the Church created an archdiocesan human rights office to follow up reports of deaths, disappearances and other human rights abuses. Auxiliary Bishop Juan Berardi Conedra led this office, and in late April of 1998 presented his report. The Guatemalan army and other paramilitary organizations came up for criticism, and were cited as responsible for 80 percent of the deaths that occurred; the guerillas were held responsible for the remainder. Tragically, Conedra was found dead two days later, his murder believed to be a political assassination. While several members of the Guatemalan military were arrested in January of 2000, events continued to delay the trial and further investigation.
Following the civil war, the Church saw its core beliefs reflected in the new government, as March 25 was proclaimed the Year of the Unborn Child, according to the country's press office: "to foster the culture of life and the defense of life from the moment of its conception." By 2000 Guatemala had 412 parishes, 340 secular and 576 religious priests, 448 brothers and 1,627 sisters. Religious congregations ran primary and secondary schools, as well as performed other much-needed social works: care of the sick, providing homes for foundlings and orphans, operating psychiatric centers and running reformatories. The Jesuit fathers directed the Rafael Landívar University with the privilege of granting academic titles as respected as those given by the autonomous University of San Carlos. The missions of Huchuetenago remained under the care of the Maryknoll fathers and those of Petén by Spanish missionaries. During his visit to Guatemala in February of 1996, Pope John Paul II reinforced the need for Catholics to continue working among the nation's increasing poor and to continue their "vigorous and dynamic effort to evangelize" in the face of increasing threats from Protestant sects working among Guatemala's rural Amerindian tribes. Following the end of civil war, the Pope prayed that the nation would "enjoy … a future of peace and progress, spiritual and material, in which the rights of every person will be respected." Guatemala's president, Alfonso Portillo Cabreras, was a member of a Protestant sect; his first term of office was set to expire in 2004.
Bibliography: c. l. jones, Guatemala: Past and Present (Minneapolis 1940). v. kelsey and l. de j. osborne, Four Keys to Guatemala (rev. ed. New York 1961).