By Joe Jordan
NEWARK, N.J. (OSV News) — The words of an exiled Nicaraguan bishop at a first-time retreat for Spanish-speaking priests in New Jersey were “personally very inspiring” and “reassured my priesthood,” said Father Bismarck Chau, pastor of the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark.
In late May, Hispanic priests from the Archdiocese of Newark and the Diocese of Paterson welcomed Bishop Silvio José Báez, auxiliary bishop of Managua, Nicaragua, as guest speaker for the retreat.
Bishop Báez gave encouragement to the priests’ ministry in times of adversity, said Father Benny Prado, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church at St. Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Montclair, and Father Chau, who co-coordinated the retreat for the priests.
The pair of Nicaraguan pastors invited Bishop Báez to speak at the retreat held at Immaculate Conception Church with the approval of Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, who attended the final day.
Bishop Báez has been exiled for four years from Nicaragua at the request of Pope Francis, who in 2019 asked the bishop to leave the country to protect him from death threats from the regime of President Daniel Ortega. Nicaraguan citizens began protesting Ortega in 2014 over political corruption, with tensions escalating over the next decade.
In the time leading up to his exile, Bishop Báez and other Catholic leaders served as intermediaries between Ortega and anti-government protesters. But in April 2018 the Ortega crackdown on protests turned deadly. As violence and killings escalated, the bishop became increasingly vocal in his criticism of the repressive government, and Ortega accused him of plotting a coup in October of 2018.
After leaving Nicaragua, Bishop Báez remained in Rome temporarily before moving to Miami, where he now resides and teaches at St. Vincent de Paul Seminary in Boynton Beach.
He has spoken candidly about his exile, saying in 2019 that the decision by the Holy Father, which he accepted and assumed, “has made my heart cry.”
The bishop also has renounced the Ortega government numerous times, calling it a regime of cruelty. But Bishop Báez, who has a doctorate in scripture, draws on faith as a source of resiliency and points to the ultimate form of suffering and resurrection. “Just as Jesus Christ, crucified by the powers of the world, was resurrected by God to a life that does not end, the crucified peoples, sooner or later, also rise again,” he said in 2022.
Bishop Báez’s experience may be an extreme case, but he told the priests at the retreat he can relate to the struggles many of them face as they lead their congregations in a world that can be hostile towards religion.
During the conversation, the bishop encouraged and celebrated their ministry by referencing the prophet Ezekiel. He highlighted how the Lord called upon Ezekiel to speak to his people while he was in exile, which Father Prado considered to be a relevant and timely focus in today’s climate.
“Sometimes as a priest today, it is easy to get discouraged, morale goes down and we even question our vocation,” Father Prado told Jersey Catholic, the online news outlet of the Archdiocese of Newark. “We live in times of persecution with an unhealthy outlook on our ministry. Bishop Báez spoke about the prophet Ezekiel’s vocation … and how this man was able to minister to his people in an era of discouragement.”
“It was very comforting the message he brought us based on Ezekiel and his experience as a prophet. We sometimes think of ourselves only as priests; we’re not just priests, we’re prophets. That was very powerful for me,” said Father Chau, who was especially inspired by listening to Bishop Báez’s preaching.
Both priests pointed to the importance of the retreat for its spiritual enrichment and fraternity, which brought together and unified Hispanic priests from the Newark Archdiocese and beyond. Father Prado and Father Chau are optimistic that even more priests will join next year’s retreat, which is tentatively planned for five days at St. Alphonsus Retreat House in Long Branch. They also hope to invite Bishop Báez back to speak.
In a May 25 tweet, Bishop Báez thanked Cardinal Tobin and the priests for the invitation: “Thank you to Cardinal Joseph Tobin, Archbishop of Newark, and the Hispanic priests of this archdiocese for having invited me to preach at their annual retreat this week. God bless your ministry. Thank you for your fraternal welcome,” the bishop said.