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Michael Krischer {*}

Paraguay: Bishop Lugo becomes the new President of the State


From: Herder-Korrespondenz, 6/2008, P. 279-281
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The former Catholic Bishop Fernando Lugo won a triumphant victory in the presidential election in Paraguay. Rome is looking for a solution to that precedent in canon law.


There is awakening in Paraguay. Nearly 41 percent of voters had voted for "Monseñor Lugo", as he is still called out of respect for his bishopric. The candidate of the ruling Colorado Party, the former Education Minister Blanca Ovelar, achieved about 10 percent less, and the coup general Lino Oviedo remained beaten with 22 percent. According to the Paraguayan Constitution a simple majority was sufficient for Lugo's presidency.


"The Whole Country is now my Cathedral"

"The whole country is now my cathedral" so Fernando Lugo declares time and again. It seems that he, the former bishop of the diocese San Pedro de Ycuamandyjú, is under a great justification pressure, because he has left the spiritual office and has gone into politics. He saw no other option. Too often he had had to recognize that he did no longer get on with moral appeals alone. If he wanted to overcome the blatant injustice in the country, he had to hold the reigns of political power.

Rome wanted to prevent the church man's way into politics. According to ecclesiastical law (canon 285, paragraph 2, CIC) clerics are forbidden to "accept public offices which mean a participation in the exercise of worldly power". But Bishop Lugo did not have himself stopped. His relinquishment of office at the end of 2004 came as a surprise. Health reasons were mentioned but also already political ambitions.

In December 2006 the Patriotic Alliance for Change (APC) officially offered him the presidential candidacy. So he had to ask Rome for his release. For the Constitution of Paraguay in Article 235 lays down that religious dignitaries are excluded from the presidency. Rome needed some coaxing but on 20 January 2007 decreed his suspension "a divinis", his release from the priestly duties. Thus the way to the candidacy was free.

Subsequently in the Paraguayan Bishops' Conference a clarification process took place. Should they support the fellow-bishop in his concern or on principle keep out of politics, if such a thing is possible at all? The bishops decided in favour of neutrality. In November 2007 and again shortly before the election in March 2008, they got in touch with the public by pastoral letters and emphasized that the church proposed or supported no candidate.

About the candidacy of Bishop Lugo they said it was "a sufficiently well-known case" and avoided the quotation of his name. Nevertheless individual bishops, as for instance the bishop of Concepción, Zacarias Ortiz, or priests and groups of priests adopted a clear position in favour of Bishop Lugo. The situation was right up to the end stretched to breaking-point.

After the election Lugo wisely took the initiative. Via the media he apologized to the Pope and the Church for not obeying the ecclesiastical law and so inflicting pain to the church. The hand was stretched out for reconciliation and was gratefully accepted. The Bishops' Conference immediately declared that it recognized Lugo as President-designate and wanted to cooperate with him. Rome promised to look for a canonical solution of the precedent.

Paraguay today belongs to the poorest countries in Latin America. After decades of dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner of German origin (from 1954 to 1989) and the since then uninterrupted rule of his Colorado Party corruption is institutionalized in the country. The majority of the population is still looking for a livelihood as small farmers, but meanwhile international agricultural corporations do business in the country. After the jungle has largely been cleared of trees, apart from cattle-breading soy beans are grown on vast areas for export. Although the world market prices are steadily rising the country hardly benefits from the gains.

The vision of a new Paraguay drives Fernando Lugo. He also in politics places his hopes in decency and morality and promises justice, the fight against poverty and the promotion of health care and education. He wants to protect the sovereignty and identity of the country against the power of corporations and large neighbouring countries and demands renegotiations of the bilateral treaty with Brazil about the Itaipu hydroelectric power plant. He regards the additional millions as financial basis for the new beginning. Clear and fair laws are to guarantee the dignity of the person and oblige the country's economy to welfare and environmental protection. Lugo stands for that with his person and his previous career.



Fernando Armindo Lugo Mendez was born on 30 May 1951 in San Solano in the south Paraguayan town of San Pedro del Paraná as the youngest son of six children. Already from an early age he became in the parents' house acquainted with the taste of politics. His uncle Epifanio Méndez Fleitas, writer, musicians and at that time one of the leading figures in the Colorado Party, with his political ideas formed the family life. But after the seizure of power by General Stroessner in 1954 the whole family fell out of favour. His parents were repeatedly arrested and his brothers went into exile. Fernando Lugo's school career began in the College of the "Blue Sisters" (Steyler Sisters) in San Pedro. In the provincial capital Encarnación he later attended the grammar school and the teachers' training college which he left in 1969 as trained primary-school teacher. On 1 March 1970 he joined the novitiate of the Missionaries of the Divine Word (Steyler Missionaries - SVD). In this international order, which in the late twenties had been entrusted by the Pope with the mission on the Rio Parana, he then got his further coinage. At the Catholic University in Asuncion he studied religious sciences. His ordination was on 15 August 1977.

That was the period after the Second General Assembly of the Latin American episcopacy in Medellin in 1968. The Paraguayan church was looking for confrontation with the dictatorship of General Stroessner. The struggle between the Church and the State lasted for several years. The bishops did not even shrink from the excommunication of the Minister of the Interior and of the chief of the police. In 1975 a raid by military units on the Christian Farmers League of San Isidro de Jejui near San Pedro was in the international headlines, because employees of the U.S. Catholic relief services stayed in the project. A much-read pastoral letter of the Paraguayan Bishops of 1978 had the significant title "Between the persecutions of the world and God's consolation."

Fernando Lugo went - under the impression of those events - as a missionary to Ecuador. He worked in the Andean diocese Bolívar of Riobamba, where Bishop Leónidas Proaño had built a church of the Indians. There Lugo experienced the church base communities as places of proclamation of the faith and social commitment. Bishop Proaño, Lugo later said, is his teacher and master.

Mid-1982 Lugo returned to Paraguay. General Stroessner was still in power, so in 1983 he already again left his homeland in order to study sociology at the Gregoriana in Rome. In Italy he was fascinated by the organizational power of the unions. Back in Paraguay he in 1987 became professor at the National Seminary in Asunción, a member of the Faith Commission of the Paraguayan Bishops' Conference and a member of the Theological Working Group of the Latin American Bishops' Council CELAM.


The Pope's Rich in Consequences Visit

John Paul's II visit to Paraguay in May 1988 got the political system moving. In the tug-of-war about the visiting programme the aged dictator had to learn his limits. The time was ripe for change. On 3 February 1989 General Alfredo Stroessner was dismissed by General Andrés Rodríguez, the father-in-law of his son. The country opened up to democracy.

On 11 September 1992 Fernando Lugo was appointed provincial of the Steyler missionaries in Paraguay and Vice-President of the Association of Religious Orders in Paraguay. He held both offices up to his appointment as bishop.

The episcopal consecration took place on 17 April 1994 in the Cathedral of Asunción. His diocese San Pedro on the upper part of the Rio Paraguay is regarded as the poor house of the country. It was only on 5 June 1978 detached from the diocese Concepción and includes the province of the same name, an area of 20.000 square kilometres and only about 315.000 inhabitants. The diocese has, in the truest sense of the word, been cut off the development of the country. There is not even an asphalt road to the bishop's city. In each tropical storm the access becomes a mud hole. Soon the rubber boots became a trademark of Bishop Lugo.



The new bishop built on what his predecessor had left behind, the "laity church" of San Pedro. Father of that church is the legendary Bishop Aníbal Maricevich of Concepción. Also the first bishop of San Pedro, Oscar Páez, since 1978 radically placed his hopes in that approach. There was a great shortage of priests (there were only 4 diocesan priests and 11 religious priests) - but the organization of the church base communities, the work of the laity as parish leaders, and the development of the pastoral social actions are exemplary. The diocese experienced a special honouring when in August 1996 in San Pedro the meeting of the Latin American base communities took place.

At that time a large diocesan map hung in Bishop Lugo's office. There the pastoral areas, parishes and base communities were marked by coloured flags. Yet the bishop had increasingly to mark new places, namely occupations of farmland. Landless small farmers systematically invaded estates that were not used by their owners. It was the only way to get their own piece of land. At times up to fifty occupations were entered on the map. Often enough the situation escalated. The military took forcible actions against those who occupied the land. There were dead who were soon regarded as martyrs. Here the bishop was in demand as mediator. Lugo received several death threats himself and was throughout the country well-known as the bishop of the poor.

Now Monseñor Lugo becomes President. In Paraguay the hopes are high, but abroad there are concerns. Many people draw especially the spectre of the Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez on the wall. Fernando Lugo refers to his Christian motivation. But already in the past in Latin America church men were regarded as bearer of political hope and failed. The worker priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide who made it to President of the Central American island state Haiti and the Nicaraguan liberation theologian and poet Ernesto Cardenal who was his country's minister of education and the arts belong to them.

It remains to be hoped that Monseñor Presidente Lugo succeeds in leading Paraguay on an independent path of justice and peace. On 15 August 2008, to the day exactly 31 years after his ordination, he will officially be installed in his office as President of the State and then he has five years time to realize his vision of a new Paraguay.


    {*} Michael Krischer (born in 1959) since 1989 has been working at the 'Internationales Katholisches Missionwerk missio' in Munich. Numerous shorter and longer stays in Paraguay. In 1991 he published his dissertation on the Church in Paraguay.


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