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Who will succeed Nicaragua’s Cardinal Brenes - and when?

Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, the Archbishop of Managua, Nicaragua, marked his 75th birthday Thursday with an almost two-hour interview.

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

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Brenes, who has led Nicaragua’s sole archdiocese since 2005, looked at ease during the wide-ranging conversation, despite the intense pressure exerted on the Church in recent years by the country’s dictatorial President Daniel Ortega.

In the interview, Brenes — a distinctive figure with bushy white hair beneath his scarlet zucchetto — confirmed that he had submitted his resignation to Pope Francis, as requested in canon law.

He noted that his resignation letter had presented no conditions for his departure, “because it seems to me that it would be bad manners to put terms to the pope.”

But whether to accept the resignation may not be a simple decision for Pope Francis. 

Cardinal Brenes. Pufui Pc Pifpef I via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0).


Blue jeans, red hat 

One point that the pope might consider as he weighs his response is that Brenes has received mixed reviews for his reaction to the Ortega regime’s persecution of the Church. 

The cardinal’s lone auxiliary, Bishop Silvio Báez, was driven into exile in 2019, leaving Brenes to guide an archdiocese serving more than two million Catholics. 

In January this year, Bishop Rolando Álvarez was released from a grueling imprisonment and also sent into exile. His departure further weakened the Nicaraguan hierarchy as he is not only the Bishop of Matagalpa but also the apostolic administrator of Estelí.

The current state of the country’s dioceses is rather precarious:

The Vatican embassy to Nicaragua, meanwhile, has been vacant since the apostolic nuncio Archbishop Waldemar Stanisław Sommertag was obliged to leave the country in March 2022.

Amid the hollowing out of the hierarchy, the deportation of priests and seminarians, and the targeting of Church institutions, some Nicaraguan Catholics have accused Brenes of failing to show courageous leadership. 

Supporters, meanwhile, argue that his irenic approach has been motivated by a desire to avoid making a terrible situation even worse. 

More than half of Nicaragua’s population has a favorable opinion of the cardinal, who is described as a humble figure. In 2014, he arrived in Rome for the consistory where he received the cardinal’s red hat wearing blue jeans.

Bishop Rolando Álvarez, Ramírez 22 nic via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

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Papal conundrum  

In his 75th birthday interview, Cardinal Brenes said he did not know when Pope Francis would accept his resignation, but if the pope did, he would happily put himself at the disposal of his successor, the fifth Archbishop of Managua.

The website Artículo 66 quoted an unnamed source in Nicaragua who suggested that Brenes would remain in post for at least three more years. 

The website said that Bishop Álvarez was seen as his likely successor, despite currently living in exile. Like Álvarez, Brenes served as Bishop of Matagalpa before his appointment to Managua. Both Managua’s second and third archbishops also spent time in the Matagalpa diocese.

“Bishop Álvarez has earned that right,” the source told Artículo 66. “We have all witnessed what kind of priest the bishop is. That doesn’t mean Cardinal Brenes will leave tomorrow, though. It will take more time, months and even years to see that, there is still a long way to go.”

What if Pope Francis decided to name Álvarez as the Archbishop of Managua tomorrow? That would be seen as a provocation, an unnamed priest told the website. 

“Let us not forget that the Church is always wise,” said the priest, “she measures the times and assigns the right people.”

What is the Ortega regime seeking, beyond an acquiescent Church willing to overlook its human rights violations? Activists in Nicaragua believe that the crackdown on clergy is meant to pressure the Holy See into giving the government a formal say in the appointment of bishops — perhaps along the lines of the Vatican-China deal.

The saga of Álvarez’s imprisonment showed there are direct communications between the Vatican and the regime. But the Holy See is likely to be extremely reluctant to concede what could amount to a veto over episcopal nominations.

The alternative to a confrontational appointment in Managua might be to do nothing for now, in hopes that conditions will improve in the next few years. 

But if the Catholic Church opts to play a waiting game, it may need considerable patience. Daniel Ortega is currently 78, while his powerful spouse, Rosario Murillo (who congratulated Brenes yesterday on his 75th birthday), is 72. 

In three years, the situation could be substantially the same, or have deteriorated further, making the succession no easier than it would be today. 

Editor’s note: This article was updated March 9 to note that Siuna’s Bishop Mora was arrested in December 2023 and exiled in January 2024.

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