Saturday, April 26, 2008

Prelate-Emeritus... President-Elect

Last weekend, the Vatican's nightmare became reality when Fernando Lugo -- the former bishop of Paraguayan diocese of San Pedro -- was elected the nation's president.

A member of the Divine Word Fathers once known as the "bishop of the poor," Lugo, 57, left office in 2005 to seek "other solutions" to the nation's problems. At Sunday's general election, the ex-bishop's Patriotic Alliance for Change won on 41 percent of the vote, ending the four-decade run of the Colorado Party, the world's longest-reigning political dynasty. He takes office on 15 August.

While Lugo resigned his ministry and petitioned Rome for laicization, the Vatican refused to grant the latter. In that light, his former confreres are trying to figure out how to handle the situation:
The Paraguayan bishops' conference made no official statement after the elections, but the Paraguayan newspaper ABC quoted Bishop Adalberto Martinez Flores of San Pedro, secretary of the Paraguayan bishops' conference, as saying that the conference "accepts and acknowledges the victory of (Bishop) Lugo as president-elect of Paraguay."

Although several media outlets reported that the Vatican could be considering a dispensation for Bishop Lugo, the apostolic nunciature in Paraguay said there had been no change in the retired bishop's status.

A brief message dated April 14 and posted on the Web site of the bishops' conference said that "the practice of the Holy See is to respond to events when they occur," and that the church's position "on the canonical situation and political-partisan activity of Bishop Fernando Lugo has not changed."

However, the Italian news agency ANSA reported April 22 that Bishop Martinez said the bishops' conference was willing to collaborate on a solution to the canonical problem.

Bishop Martinez said the bishops will work with Archbishop Orlando Antonini, papal nuncio to Paraguay, in a "process of reflection" that must take a verdict to Pope Benedict XVI before Aug. 15, when Bishop Lugo takes office for a five-year term, reported ANSA.

Passionist Father Ciro Benedettini, vice director of the Vatican's press office, said April 21 and 22 that the Vatican will not be making any statements regarding Bishop Lugo.
...and from The Tablet, a more personal look at the prelate-emeritus/president-elect:
Fernando Lugo Méndez, in his first public pronouncement after the exit polls in Paraguay unanimously showed he was the winner, promised that his would be "a humble and a modest presidency". The former bishop was casually dressed in an open-necked shirt and sleeveless anorak: he never wears a suit. He spoke very briefly, as is his custom, but said the result had shown that "the little ones" were capable of winning - a good expression from someone identified with liberation theology.

I first met Fernando Lugo in 1996, when he was hosting the Fifth Latin American Congress of Basic Ecclesial Communities in his diocese. San Pedro de Ycuamandyju is one of the poorest regions of the country. To get there I drove all night with a friend in a rattling old banger, trying to hold a straightish line on a strip of dust. Other participants at the congress had arrived by a bus, which broke down on the journey back. Lugo said it was a miracle that the congress had come to his diocese. It was.

"I wish I had arms enough to embrace you all," he declared in his closing homily, expressing the warmth that always characterised his addresses. He was less at home the next time I met him, in Rome for the synod for America in 1997. "Do you like this sort of thing?" he said, looking round the synod hall, where all (including him) were togged up in their red and purple robes. "Don't you?" I asked. "It's a spectacle," he replied coolly.

The next time I travelled towards San Pedro I was in Lugo's car at his invitation, so that we could talk while he travelled. He had quite a comfortable jeep, no doubt donated from abroad for the missions - "an episcopal car" he joked, mock-pompously - to force its way through when rain turned the road to mud.

Because of his work in San Pedro, Lugo is identified with the struggle of the poor, but he himself comes from an educated, though relatively modest, home. He chose to make a statement to the press on Christmas Day 2006, when he confirmed he would be willing to stand for the presidency, from his parents' wood-and-tile house in Encarnación, which he described as "the most humble house in the neighbourhood". But his uncle was Epifanio Méndez, who was the most important opposition politician exiled by Alfredo Stroessner, and who died in exile before the 34-year dictatorship came to an end.

Born in 1951, Lugo began his working life as a teacher in a country school so remote that he was able to escape the usual rule that teachers had to be members of the ruling Colorado Party. He joined the Divine Word congregation and studied sociology in Rome. Then he worked for a while as a missionary with the indigenous people of Ecuador. He was ordained bishop in 1994, and was a strong supporter of basic ecclesial communities in the diocese. Lugo was one of the few bishops who would regularly attend national meetings of base communities - the local church groups that are associated with liberation theology - and the only one who would be always be there for the whole of the congress.

In San Pedro he had problems with drug traffickers and landowners, and received death threats: it was all in a day's work. He resigned from his diocese of San Pedro in 2005, and became prominent on the national scene again when he organised a massive demonstration on 29 March 2006 against a return to dictatorship, at a moment when President Nicanor Duarte Frutos seemed to be showing tendencies in that direction. After the success of that march, Lugo began to think about running for president.

Clergy who go into active political life are severely censured by the Church: warned, suspended from their ministry, expelled from their religious orders, and publicly criticised. Lugo anticipated the problems by writing his own letter to Pope Benedict asking to be suspended a divinis, that is, from the exercise of his ordained ministry. It received a frosty reception, and the Vatican claimed that there was no need for Lugo to offer his services to politics, because Paraguay was a democracy and there were plenty of lay people who could take his place. The truth is that no one other than Lugo could have beaten the Colorados last Sunday. The Catholic Church is held in high esteem in Paraguay, while politicians are seen as thieves and liars, so being a bishop was crucial to Lugo's victory. It made him trusted among the poor majority, so that when his opponents tried to blacken his name with the unlikely charges of being a kidnapper and terrorist, the people simply laughed.
PHOTO: Reuters/Atilio Fernandez