Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Where are they now?: Msgr. Nicolás Castellanos

Back in July 2009, we published our translation of an interview with this Spanish bishop who resigned from his diocese in Palencia to devote himself full time to ministering to the poor in Bolivia. As we catch up with him again, Msgr. Nicolás Castellanos says he has fallen in love with his adopted land and plans to become a Bolivian citizen.

By Gina Baldivieso (English translation by Rebel Girl)
La Opinión (Bolivia)

Nicolás Castellanos, the Spanish Catholic bishop who resigned two decades ago from the Diocese of Palencia to help the poor in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, in eastern Bolivia, admits he is in love with this country and announces that he will become a naturalized Bolivian.

At 76, the winner of the Premio Príncipe de Asturias de la Concordia in 1998 is getting his bags ready to travel to Spain this Friday in search of financing for new projects, with the promise that he will continue working for Bolivia "as long as the body can bear it," he states in an interview with EFE.

It's easy to get to his house in the Plan 3,000 neighborhood, since everybody knows Castellanos and his work in Santa Cruz, where "60% are poor and 40% live in misery," the priest adds.

His housing is as modest as those around him, on a dirt road, just as it was when he came to live in this neighborhood two decades ago.

The people of Santa Cruz are known for their religious vocation, even now when the relationship between the Catholic Church and Bolivian President Evo Morales has deteriorated due to constant attacks by the nationalist and indigenist ruler.

Castellanos believes those attacks are unnecessary because his church is the institution "with the greatest credibility in Bolivia" because of its work for the poor, as distinct from this government and previous ones which, as he says, have done nothing for them.

If he had the opportunity to meet Morales personally, he says he would ask him for an honest dialogue between all to "seek a solution together to the only problem Bolivia has -- poverty."

Castellanos remembers that his parents, humble laborers, were able "through much effort and work" to give a career path to him and his brothers, Hermógenes y Demetrio, though unlike them -- they were doctors -- he chose the religious life.

"I always had the option for the poor; I believe that for any follower of Jesus of Nazareth, the poor are fundamental," Castellanos explains to EFE, to justify his resignation from the bishopric in 1991 to be a missionary in South America.

The priest had been clear about where he wanted to carry out his apostolate ever since he came to Bolivia for the first time in 1988, while still bishop of Palencia, to give a lecture.

After Pope John Paul II accepted his resignation, Castellanos settled in 1992 in the depressed Plan 3,000, called such because it welcomed that number of families who had remained homeless due to a surge in 1983 in the Piraí river that borders on Santa Cruz.

Today, the Plan now has 300,000 inhabitants, and although Santa Cruz is the most prosperous region in Bolivia, in that neighborhood "the hunger, want and need are gnawing and palpable," Castellanos states.

Moved by the needs of the area, he founded Proyecto Hombres Nuevos, to "restore dignity and leadership to the poor."

Fifteen schools, a cultural and sports complex, a hospital, 65 soccer fields, a center for child laborers, 500 young scholarship students in the university and dozens of churches -- these are a few of the priest's works.

Those who want help from Hombres Nuevos just approach Castellanos and ask him, trusting that he will not disappoint them.

And they're right, since he gets the resources for every work in person, traveling to Switzerland, Italy, Germany and, above all, his native Spain to look for financing.

In the time he has been in Bolivia, he has seen everything, although the hardest moment was in 2009, when four men burst into his house to rob him at gunpoint.

But the satisfactions were greater than the burdens -- the greatest, seeing how 25 lads from Santa Cruz whom he had supported to become professionals, are now the ones who administer Hombre Nuevos, in return for what they had received.

In love with his new country, Castellanos began in May to deal with Bolivian nationality, something that had not occurred to him before because in Santa Cruz he is considered "más camba que la yuca" [Translator's note: this is an idiomatic Bolivian expression meaning roughly "more tropical than yucca"], that is, more a native of Santa Cruz than any of them.

It never ceases to surprise him that they ask him to build churches, since he wasn't thinking about doing it when he came to the country, but every time he went into a neighborhood to ask about their needs, the answer was always the same: a church.

"So we shifted gears and we have built six wonderful churches, without luxury, but functional, where people have a place to meet," Castellanos explains.

Photo: Msgr. Nicolás Castellanos with young people in a community center run by his Hombres Nuevos foundation.

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