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The complicated future of Nicaraguan bishop appointments

On March 7, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, archbishop of Managua, turned 75 - the age at which bishops are required to present their resignation to the pope.

The cardinal's birthday escalates an already uncomfortable episcopal situation in Nicaragua.

Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, the Archbishop of Managua, Nicaragua. Screenshot from the Arquidiócesis de Managua YouTube channel.


With barely 7 million inhabitants, Nicaragua's episcopal conference is made up of just nine dioceses, including the archdiocese of Managua.

Of the nine, at least five are in an irregular episcopal situation.

Two are led by bishops who have passed the retirement age: Managua, led by Brenes; and Jinotega, led by Bishop Carlos Herrera, who is the president of the episcopal conference.

Three others have their bishop in exile: Siuna, led by Bishop Isidoro Mora; and Matagalpa and Estelí, of which Bishop Rolando Álvarez is respectively bishop and apostolic administrator.

Álvarez was exiled to Rome after almost a year and a half in prison. Mora was also exiled after a month in jail.

What will the future of episcopal appointments in Nicaragua look like? There are several factors at play.

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The ‘exiled’ dioceses

The dioceses of Matagalpa, Estelí and Siuna are particularly affected by the absence of their bishops.

Matagalpa and Estelí have been without the physical presence of their bishop since August 2022, when Bishop Álvarez was imprisoned and later charged with conspiracy.

Álvarez had been the bishop of Matagalpa since 2011 and the apostolic administrator of Estelí since 2021. Months after his imprisonment, the Vatican appointed Father Frutos Valle Salmerón as administrator ad omnia of the diocese of Estelí.

Valles Salmerón has been criticized for apparently removing several priests critical of the Ortega regime from important positions in the diocesan curia and from central and large parishes.

Meanwhile, the diocese of Matagalpa was informally left under the care of its vicar general, Father Óscar Escoto, with Bishop Isidoro Mora of Siuna in charge of certain episcopal tasks.

However, Mora was imprisoned in December, and Escoto was exiled to Rome, leaving the diocese without leadership. Furthermore, according to local reports, about half of the priests in the diocese have been exiled.

The Nicaraguan dictatorship has pressured the Vatican to make new episcopal appointments in these dioceses - and it is clear that they prefer candidates close to the regime.

However, according to sources with knowledge of the situation, it does not appear that there will be an episcopal appointment in any of these dioceses soon.

The pope received Bishop Álvarez in audience shortly after he arrived in exile in Rome and reiterated his support of the bishop, which is why the possibility of an episcopal appointment to replace him seems slim.

Furthermore, in the latest group of exiled priests, the majority had important diocesan positions, such as Father Carlos Avilés, vicar general of the archdiocese of Managua, the aforementioned Escoto, vicar general of Matagalpa, and Father Silvio Fonseca, vicar of the family ministry of Managua.

Others recently exiled had studied outside Nicaragua or were parish priests in large parishes. A couple were exorcists, a fact which has drawn interest, given the first lady and vice president's public and notorious ties to the occult.

All this indicates that the exile of these priests had a very clear purpose: to drain the lists of possible episcopal candidates in Nicaragua.

Meanwhile, since the apostolic nuncio was expelled from the country in 2022, there is no person fully trusted by the Vatican to evaluate candidates for bishops in the country.

As a result, Ortega's strategy could actually backfire: Instead of forcing the Vatican to appoint priests favorable to the regime, with unknown or little experience, it seems to be leading the Vatican to re-evaluate its long-term approach to the country.

Rather than appoint replacements in these dioceses, the Vatican may prefer to wait and keep the dioceses without a bishop present in the country for the foreseeable future.

After all, Álvarez is only 57 years old and Mora is 54, while Ortega is already 78 years old. Perhaps the wisest thing would be to wait for nature to take its course.

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The bishop of the regime

The most complicated situation is found in Managua and Jinotega since their bishops are over 75 years of age.

Certainly, Pope Francis has not been shy about letting bishops close to him or in pressing situations serve well beyond the age of 75. For example, Cardinal Baltazar Porras of Caracas, Venezuela is 79 years old and continues to serve as archbishop of Caracas in a situation comparable to that of Nicaragua. Other bishops close to the pope, such as Cardinal Madariaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, served even after reaching the age of 80.

Cardinal Brenes is known for his closeness to Pope Francis, in addition to finding himself in a complicated situation where the Nicaraguan dictatorship would like a friendly bishop. It is expected that he will remain archbishop of Nicaragua for at least a couple of years, information which local sources confirmed to The Pillar.

The situation of Bishop Carlos Herrera of Jinotega is similar, since although he turned 75 in December 2023, he is president of the episcopal conference until the end of this year, so it is very unlikely that his resignation will be accepted before leaving the presidency of the conference.

Therefore, unless one of these bishops becomes seriously ill in the near future, the Vatican will most likely try to maintain the status quo for two or three years.

However, Francis will eventually have to make an episcopal appointment. According to sources with knowledge of the case, the regime's pick for the archdiocese of Managua is the bishop of León, René Sándigo.

Sándigo is known as the Nicaraguan bishop most favorable to the Ortega regime.

Although he had been moderately critical of the regime in the past, local media reported that the bishop had a computer stolen from his office in 2019.

Since then, Sándigo has become increasingly closer to the Ortega regime. He is perhaps the only bishop who has not received threats since 2019, in addition to the fact that he is one of the few who has been allowed to continue with processions during Holy Week or around the feast of the Immaculate Conception, patron saint of Nicaragua.

In return, Sándigo has publicly and privately paid homage to the Nicaraguan dictatorship, attending official events and allowing himself to be photographed with Ortega and other leaders.

In addition, local sources told The Pillar that Sándigo has threatened to deny priestly credentials to priests who have been exiled from their diocese to be incardinated in a diocese abroad, if these priests decide to speak to the media about the situation in Nicaragua.

Sándigo is considered the man of the regime in the episcopal conference, while Brenes is considered favorable to the dictatorship, but only because he has been intimidated with threats.

Therefore, Sándigo has taken on an increasingly important role within the Nicaraguan Church. For example, he was the only Nicaraguan delegate at the first assembly of the Synod of Synodality in October 2023 and is considered one of the leading voices within the episcopal conference.

For this reason, the Nicaraguan regime could seek to pressure the Vatican to appoint Sándigo as archbishop of Managua (and possibly as cardinal as well) in exchange for a peace bought with the price of silence.

However, since there is no agreement or concordat that mediates episcopal appointments in Nicaragua, the pope has absolute freedom – theoretically – to name the successors of Brenes and Herrera, and he could name a complete stranger or one of the other Nicaraguan bishops who is still in the country.

But Francis must play his cards well, balancing the independence of the Church and not provoking Ortega, or he could be facing, sooner rather than later, a China in the tropics.

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