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“I will be the voice of Guatemala”: interview with Msgr. Ramazzini Imeri, the frontier bishop to be created cardinal

Pope Francis chose as cardinals bishops who proclaim and bear witness to the Gospel from the periphery. Such is the diocese of Huehuetenango (almost one million faithful, out of its 1,200,000 inhabitants), in the west of Guatemala, near the border with the Mexican State of Chiapas, where Monsignor Álvaro Leonel Ramazzini Imeri lives and works. A bishop courageously dedicated to the poorest people of the Central American country for decades, to their rights, to migrants and indigenous people in particular

“This morning I was awakened by a priest friend who lives in Rome. He told me that the Pope had just announced that I was among the new cardinals. Obviously, it came as a great surprise to me.” Msgr. Álvaro Leonel Ramazzini Imeri, bishop of Huehuetenango, in Guatemala, speaks to SIR of how he was informed, at 4 in the morning, on this important news.

Even this time, as has become customary practice, Pope Francis has elevated to cardinalship bishops who proclaim and bear witness to the Gospel from the periphery. Such is the diocese of Huehuetenango (almost one million faithful, out of 1.2 million inhabitants), in the west of Guatemala, near the border with the Mexican State of Chiapas. Msgr. Ramazzini is certainly no stranger to Guatemala, nor to the Latin American Church. He is known as the “frontier bishop.” For decades he has been courageously working for the good of the poorest in the Central American country, for their rights, for migrants and indigenous people in particular. In the past he was even the object of death threats as a result of his commitment.

Álvaro Leonel Ramazzini Imeri was born in Ciudad de Guatemala on 16 July 1947. He was ordained priest on 27 June 1971, for the archdiocese of Guatemala. He obtained his Doctorate in Canon Law at the Pontifical Gregorian University. On 15 December 1988 he was nominated bishop of San Marcos and received episcopal consecration in Rome by Saint John Paul II on 6 January 1989. He held many positions at the Bishops’ Conference of Guatemala, of which he was president from 2006 to 2008.

Why do you think Pope Francis chose you? What is the message behind this choice, for the Church of Guatemala and beyond?

It is a mystery that only the Pope could solve. I think that one of the reasons is the Pope’s concern, his pastoral love for our country, which suffers as a result of difficult political and social circumstances, such as migration, which affects many of my fellow countrymen and people in Central America. Today we are experiencing a complex situation, also because of the narrow attitude of the United States and, lately, even Mexico. Other issues include the recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples, and the environmental question, given that in Guatemala there are still vast stretches of forest to be protected. These are very important issues and choices.

What does this elevation to cardinal mean to you?

It implies an ever greater commitment:

I feel called and mandated to persevere in my pastoral choices,

especially as regards the above-mentioned issues. It’s an opportunity to give voice to so many forgotten and poor people, to make this voice heard, so to speak, closer to the Vatican.

The Pope’s choice also implies special attention to Central America.

It does. Now there will be a cardinal for almost every country: a Guatemalan cardinal was missing, while there was one in El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. Only Costa Rica is lacking its cardinal. These are small countries, but it’s important that the voice of these faithful be heard.

Your designation comes at a time of transition for Guatemala. The election of the new President of the Republic, Alejandro Giammattei, was received with scepticism by those who expect concrete changes. What is your opinion?

There is always hope, but there are structural difficulties here, which also largely depend on the choices of the global economy. We must remain hopeful and hope that the government will do its best.

Corruption is one of the most controversial issues in Guatemala. Outgoing president Jimmy Morales has expelled the United Nations-backed anti-corruption mission – (Cicig). Are there hopes that the Commission will be reinstated?

In fact, the new President Giammattei declared that he intends to replace it with a new state commission. In truth, I do not know if it will work, if it will be able to perform its duties with the required independence. But even in this case, we have to wait. It’s hard to talk about what has yet to happen.

You criticized the agreement signed by the outgoing president with the US to make Guatemala the “tercer Pais seguro”, where immigrants could wait for the answer to their asylum application in the US. Do you confirm this criticism?

There are two intersecting perspectives. On the one hand, as a Church we will be called to engage in charity and solidarity. But having said that, what form of security can Guatemala offer today? The president did not ask for advice and proceeded along his own path. But that was not the best decision.

The Consistory for the creation of the new cardinals will coincide with the opening of the Synod for the Amazon. What effects could this ecclesial event have on the Central American Church, on the pastoral care of the indigenous peoples and of creation?

A meeting with various bishops will be held in Mexico City at the beginning of October to form a Mesoamerican Network which, modelled on the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network, will work for the integral ecology of our countries. This will require major efforts.

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