8 Nicaraguan Priests Expelled by Ortega Regime Celebrate Mass for First Time in 6 Months
A Washington, D.C., pastor describes the emotion-filled Mass and harrowing stories of prison life before the deportees were expelled from the country, along with hundreds of political prisoners.
HYATTSVILLE, Md. — The private chapel at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ imposing, multistoried building in the nation’s capital typically draws a stream of USCCB staff and visiting prelates who want to celebrate Mass and are pleased to take advantage of a convenient venue for that purpose.
But on Feb. 10, the USCCB chapel was the first stop for eight exiled Nicaraguan priests who had been prevented from celebrating Mass for six months following their imprisonment by the Nicaraguan government.
On Feb. 9, the previous day, the priests were taken from their prison cells and brought to Augusto Cesar Sandino International Airport in Managua, where they were transported from their homeland to Washington, D.C., on a flight organized by the U.S. State Department.
The priests were part of a group of 222 Nicaraguan deportees — most of them political prisoners — who were allowed to leave the country following negotiations between the Biden administration and the authoritarian regime headed by Daniel Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo.
“The Nicaraguan priests wanted to celebrate Mass, and all of us present were in tears” during the service, said Father Roberto Jose Cortes Campos, the Nicaraguan-born pastor of St. Mark the Evangelist Church in Hyattsville, Maryland, who participated in the Mass celebrated at the USCCB chapel.
The following day, Father Cortes-Campos hosted the group, which included eight priests, two seminarians and a deacon, for Mass at his own parish, located near The Catholic University of America.
The new arrivals, still wearing the clothes they had on when they were abruptly escorted from prison, shared harrowing stories of their lengthy confinement that preceded the swift-moving chain of events that brought them to the United States.
On Feb. 12, most of the group flew to Miami, where they will be hosted by the Archdiocese of Miami and are expected to meet with Auxiliary Bishop Silvio Báez of Managua, who is also living in exile and ministers to a growing community of Nicaraguan immigrants.
“Some of them had very little food in prison. And one priest told me, ‘I lost 40 pounds,’” said Father Cortes-Campos, who moved to the United States with his family in 1983, in the wake of the 1979 Sandinista revolution led by Ortega.
“That tells you a lot about the physical toll of their imprisonment,” he added, and he speculated that the restrictions by the regime were designed to “weaken and traumatize them.”
He also learned that during the long months the prisoners were locked away in their cells, some were cut off entirely from regular human contact, while others found opportunities to communicate.
“Each cell had two cement slabs for bunk beds,” but everyone was kept isolated, he said.
Very occasionally, close relatives were permitted to visit, “possibly to address the concerns of the international community.”
Likewise, the prisoners were denied the sacraments, as well as the Bible and other reading materials.
Secretly, they made rosaries by taking pieces of their clothing. But the religious articles were violently removed by the guards as soon as they were found.
During the long days that stretched out over many weeks and months, the prisoners deepened their prayer life, finding solace in the Lord’s presence.
Diocese of Matagalpa
The majority of the priests, as well as the two seminarians, the deacon and several lay Catholics served in the Diocese of Matagalpa, where Bishop Rolando Álvarez emerged as the nation’s most credible voice of opposition to the human-rights violations of the Ortega regime. Last August, after the standoff between the government and the Matagalpa Church leader reached a crisis point, Bishop Álvarez and other Church personnel were arrested.
In early February, the priests, seminarians and others involved in the confrontation were sentenced to 10 years in prison. According to reports from the local newspaper La Prensa and the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH), their sentences consisted of five years for the crime of “conspiracy to undermine national security and sovereignty” and five years for “spreading fake news,” with an additional 800 days monetary fine based on the convicted person’s daily salary.
The convicted priests, who were later freed and flown to the U.S., include Father Ramiro Reynaldo Tijerino Chávez, 50, rector of John Paul II University; Father Sadiel Antonio Eugarrios Cano, 35, former vicar of the Matagalpa cathedral; and Father José Luis Díaz Cruz, 33, current vicar of the Matagalpa cathedral.
All of the exiles were stripped of their Nicaraguan nationality.
Bishop Álvarez’s Choice
On Feb. 10, Bishop Alvarez, who was found guilty of similar crimes and received a lengthier sentence of 26 years, was transferred from house arrest to La Modelo prison.
Since then, Pope Francis has expressed concern for the bishop’s welfare and petitioned the Virgin Mary to intercede on behalf of Bishop Álvarez. The U.S. State Department also condemned his sentencing, and prominent Nicaraguan political prisoners have called for the release of all imprisoned opponents of the regime.
Meanwhile, President Ortega announced that Bishop Álvarez had refused to leave the country, and independent media outlets suggest that the bishop, following his conviction and sentencing, vowed to “serve” the sentences of the freed prisoners.
“Bishop Álvarez only had two options: exile or prison,” said Nicaraguan attorney Martha Patricia Molina Montenegro, a member of the Pro-Transparency and Anti-Corruption Observatory. “He opted for the harsher [choice]. I think it was because, as the bishop of Matagalpa, he would not abandon the remaining priests in his diocese who are still under siege and suffering persecution and threats. He preferred to remain, fulfilling his mission of raising his prophetic voice in the light of the Gospel and the truth.”
Christopher Ljungquist, a USCCB adviser on Latin America, held up Bishop Álvarez as an icon for modern Catholics.
“Today, Catholics in Nicaragua have undergone what the early Church understood to be the supreme privilege of being a Catholic, and that is persecution for the faith,” said Ljungquist, who was present at the Feb.10 Mass celebrated by the eight Nicaraguan priests in Washington.
This testimony of faith will enrich the global Church, Ljungquist predicted.
“Nicaragua is the last truly majority-Catholic country in Central America. The others are shifting toward evangelical Protestantism,” he noted.
The deportees who arrived from Nicaragua are “educated, sophisticated, pastorally oriented good priests,” said Ljungquist. “We will be lucky to have them for as long as we have them.”
Father Tijerino’s Homily
Ljungquist singled out the moving homily at the Feb. 10 Mass that was delivered by Father Tijerino, the university rector, and provided a meditation on the human person’s need for communion.
“The homily offered a developed Trinitarian theology of human communication and its value for Christians,” said Ljungquist. God “created us for community, and this essential constitutive element of our humanity was denied them in prison.”
But those who once took casual conversations for granted learned to value the precious moments they were able to speak together through the bars of their cells.
Father Tijerino explained in his homily how the inmates “made a point to wake up early in the morning and very zealously greet each other,” he said. “They had long conversations when they could, as an antidote to despair and loneliness.”
The silver lining in these difficult months, said the rector, was a newfound appreciation for the incalculable value of loving communication.
And yet, “how many times do we neglect our family members for no good reason, when we should be reaching out?” Father Tijerino asked the small congregation at the USCCB chapel.
Father Cortes-Campos was also moved by the rector’s striking lack of animus toward the Ortega regime that had treated him so harshly.
The Maryland pastor said he was touched by the sense of joy and peace that emanated from the group of exiles, despite all that they had suffered, and despite the fact that they would not see their families and homeland for many years to come.
Finding a Measure of Hope
That said, Father Cortes-Campos also found a measure of hope in the Ortega regime’s abrupt decision to deport its perceived opponents. In his view, the move underscores the government’s growing political weakness and lack of moral credibility, as the international community condemns its repressive policies.
“Now they have sent Bishop Álvarez to one of the most notorious prisons in the country — ‘La Modelo,’ which is commonly referred to as ‘little hell,’” he said.
“You see the vengeance and the powerlessness they feel regarding this bishop who refused to go into exile.”
In contrast, the Nicaraguan deportees he met with showed no desire for retribution, only a palpable sense of peace.
“They have a strong faith that allowed them to survive the brutality” of prison, Father Cortes-Campos said. “Their prayer life was deepened, and they have returned to the essentials.”
“Sometimes when we get everything we want,” the priest added, “we become petty in our demands. But they are really focused on what is important: fostering a relationship with Christ.”