BUSHWICK — An auxiliary bishop who fled his native Nicaragua after facing down death threats for criticizing that country’s totalitarian government was at St. Brigid Church in Bushwick on Jan. 8, helping the largely Latino community there celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany.
Auxiliary Bishop Silvio José Báez, a Discalced Carmelite, serves the Archdiocese of Managua in Nicaragua but now lives in exile in Miami after leaving his homeland in 2019 at the request of Pope Francis.
“My feet are here, but my heart is with the people of Nicaragua,” he said prior to the Mass.
Bishop Báez asked St. Brigid parishioners to pray for the people of Nicaragua who, he said, want only to live in peace.
The fact that his visit took place on the Feast of the Epiphany was significant for St. Brigid parishioners, for whom the feast is one of the most important days of the year. It marks the visit by the Three Wise Men to see the Baby Jesus and their recognition of him as the Lord.
The bishop’s visit comes at a time of continuing violence and unrest in Nicaragua.
According to Human Rights Watch, the government led by President Daniel Ortega, which came to power in 2007, has suppressed political opposition — often with violence and intimidation. At the same time, it has cracked down on the media and religious leaders. Hundreds of people have been killed since the latest round of unrest began in 2018, and more than 50,000 people have since fled the country.
In addition to death threats, Bishop Báez faced physical danger in Nicaragua. In 2018, he was brutally attacked by a mob sympathetic to Ortega for speaking out against the government following its crackdown on Catholic churches. He was set upon by the mob, slashed in the arm with a knife and punched in the stomach.
The attack took place after churches had opened their doors to offer refuge to demonstrators who had been attacked by security forces for protesting the government’s move to raise taxes and cut retirement benefits. The reforms were never carried out, but the government’s plan led to protests that were punished by government-sanctioned violence.
“The situation in Nicaragua is very difficult. There are people who are suffering since many years ago with a dictatorship that is oppressing people, including myself,” Bishop Báez explained.
Despite the grave danger he faced, Bishop Báez told The Tablet he would return to Nicaragua in a heartbeat.
The only reason he left, he said, was because the Holy Father requested it out of concern for his safety.
“I didn’t want to leave the country. I wanted to remain there. For me, it was an act of obedience to the Pope. And I’m convinced that this was God’s will,” he added.
Bishop Báez was invited to visit the Diocese of Brooklyn by Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus Octavio Cisneros to lead a week-long series of retreats for Spanish-speaking priests at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception. During his visit, he stayed at St. Brigid Church.
For parishioners like Lauren Ricarde, who is from Nicaragua, the Mass took on a special meaning because of Bishop Báez’s presence.
“I am happy he is out of Nicaragua, and I am happy he is safe,” Ricarde said.
Father Carlos Velásquez, the pastor of St. Brigid, whose parents were originally from Nicaragua, said it was an honor to host Bishop Báez.
“Bishop Báez’s visit is a great joy for our parish, and having a successor to the apostles visiting your parish is always a great joy, especially someone who has been so close to the people of God in Nicaragua,” Father Velásquez said. “He is a shining example of the value of the Gospel calling for freedom and peace throughout the world, particularly in Nicaragua.
“It’s sad seeing the reality of what is happening there.”