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Church flourishes in Guatemala. But it struggles to bridge cultural differences, train new priests

Battered by years of repression because of its community work, Guatemala's Roman Catholic Church sees brighter days ahead with the return of democratic rule to the country. But church leaders acknowledge that longer-term problems, such as the overwhelmingly foreign makeup of the priesthood and the difficulties of bringing the gospel to a largely indigenous culture, remain serious.

The church was careful not to give open support to any one party in last December's elections, says Guatemala's auxiliary bishop, Juan Gerardi. But the victorious Christian Democratic Party ``shares the church's social doctrine,'' he says, ``and we were happy at the Christian Democrats' win.''

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The wave of violence that swept Guatemala in the early 1980s took a toll on the church, whose social projects were seen as communist-inspired.

In the village of Zacualpa in Quich'e Province, for example, ``the people are very suspicious and don't dare go into the church,'' says Benoit Charlemagne, a French priest in a neighboring town. ``The parish buildings were used as an Army torture chamber, and all the lay preachers were killed,'' he says.

Between 1978 and 1984, 16 Catholic priests died at the hands of political assassins along with an unknown number of lay preachers, says Bishop Gerardi. Others fled Guatemala and work among fellow refugees in Mexico. Others formed the ``Guatemalan church in exile'' in Nicaragua.

In the face of official repression, the church ``took a maintaining attitude: We kept our heads down,'' says Cob'an's bishop, Msgr. Gerardo Flores. Although that policy kept the church more or less intact, the dangers of being associated with Catholic organizations drained many faithful members into rival fundamentalist Protestant sects. Such groups have flourished in recent years, especially in the provinces of Quich'e and Alta Verapaz. These are the provinces in which the Army has focused its counterinsurgency campaigns against leftist guerrillas.

``Certainly, during the epoch of great violence [in the early 1980s] many people became Protestants out of fear to save their lives,'' says Msgr. Flores.

He estimates that some 15 percent of the population in Alta Verapaz belongs to a fundamentalist church. The process around the country was undoubtedly hastened by Gen. Efra'in R'ios Montt, President from 1981 to 1983. General R'ios Montt was an evangelist and preached to the nation every Sunday night during his rule.

But, with an end to the military government, ``church work is now losing the suspicion of subversion we were under before,'' says Gerardi. ``Our top priority now is pastoral social work, and we have a good opportunity to make people more aware of their right to participate.''

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Gerardi plans to start with the formation of ``base communities,'' the grass-roots structure of the Catholic Church in Latin America. These communities were suppressed in recent years, because they were associated with an effort toward social change, which many in the military equated with subversion, and hence were repressed. Under the new circumstances, the bishop hopes, ``there might be a chance for us to encourage popular organizations'' such as cooperatives, health care groups, and so on.

This reconstruction of society's grass-roots organizations corresponds with one of the government's goals. How the church will go about its renewed tasks may depend on what President Vinicio Cerezo Ar'evalo does.

``Our relations with the government are cordial, but not intimate,'' says Gerardi. ``When we can cooperate with government programs, we shall -- but from our own perspective.''

Ironically, the church's projects will mostly be undertaken by foreigners. ``A big problem for the church is that the majority of its people are foreign,'' explains Flores. ``That makes the church a little artificial.''

Of Guatemala's 400 or so priests, less than one-quarter are Guatemalans, Gerardi estimates. The rest, like Benoit Charlemagne, come from Europe and North America. Although the Spaniards imposed Catholicism on Guatemala with the conquest 400 years ago, ``we are a young church, still in the process of implanting ourselves,'' Gerardi insists. Only in 1925, he explains, did the church start to recover from 50 years of government anticlericalism that had begun with the closure of all religious orders and seminaries. Foreign missions began pouring into Guatemala in the 1940s, as orders closed down their missions in east Asian countries.

When these missions left the country, Gerardi says, ``they did not leave behind churches with parish priests'' who would have served as the basis for a truly Guatemalan church identity. A weakness in that identity is the paucity of indigenous priests. There are less than 20 in a country where 60 percent of the people are Indians.

``We have serious cultural problems'' in training indigenous priests, says Flores. These problems range from the fact that Indian seminarians must study in a foreign language, Spanish, to the value gap between the priest's vow of celibacy and the Indians' pride in fatherhood. These differences extend throughout the church's work among its predominantly indigenous flock, whose strong religious traditions date back to their Mayan ancestors.

``The task of presenting the gospel is a question of dialogue,'' Gerardi says. ``The important thing is not to cut the people off from what they believe and try to impose something else. That would involve terrible social and religious ruptures.'' The Catholic doctrine of the Trinity, for example, makes more sense to Guatemalan Indians when they are related to the traditional Mayan trinity of the moon goddess, the god of hills and valleys, and the maize god. Evangelization ``must start from an attitude of respect'' for Mayan religion, ``a recognition that their culture is just as valid of ours,'' he says.

Seeking the roots of that culture remains a challenge for a church still striving to put down its roots here.

``Our indigenous people have a capacity for absorption, for dissimulation, that at the end of the day has served as a way of staying alive'' in the face of four centuries of outside oppression, says Flores. ``We still do not know the Indians' inner identity, their deepest soul.''

Third in a four-part series. Next: Army's strategy to control highland regions.

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