Catholicism in Belize: The Church in a troubled paradise

A former stronghold of the Mayan empire and later a haven for European pirates, Belize first encountered Catholicism by way of missionaries who came with the Spanish conquistadors in the 1520s.

Southeastern aerial view of Belize City. (Studentbz/Wikipedia)

Though the percentages can vary significantly, almost all sources place Catholicism as the largest religious denomination in Belize. Located south of Mexico and east of Guatemala, Belize is geographically part of Central America, but culturally more aligned with the Caribbean.

A former stronghold of the Mayan empire and later a haven for European pirates, Belize first encountered Catholicism by way of missionaries who came with the Spanish conquistadors in the 1520s. The more influential Catholic era took place in the 1800s with the arrival of Jesuits who established churches throughout the territory, which in 1862 became known as British Honduras.

In the 20th century, a series of catastrophic hurricanes prompted Belize to change its capital from the waterfront location of Belize City to the more inland location of Belmopan. Still a very young country, Belize did not gain full independence from the United Kingdom until 1981.

Belize offers, among other things, tropical weather, a breathtaking coast, Mayan ruins, and astounding biodiversity. There is also much diversity among the human inhabitants in this nation with a total population of 400,000. About 50 percent of Belizean residents identify as either Latino or Mestizo, and persons of at least partial African ancestry account for more than 25 percent of the populace. Other significant groups consist of Chinese, Germans, Indians, and persons from the Middle East, along with Americans and Canadians.

The Diocese of Belize was established in 1956 and was renamed the Diocese of Belize City-Belmopan in 1983. It is a suffragan diocese of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Jamaica. As of 2015, there were 12 parishes with nine diocesan priests and 27 religious priests.

English is the official language in Belize, though about 50 percent of the people speak a Creole dialect containing elements of English and indigenous African languages. Additionally, about 30 percent speak Spanish as a native language. Deacon David Hendrickson is unaware of any Masses said in Belizean Creole, and says that Masses there are generally said in English or Spanish. Hendrickson is a Wisconsin resident who has been a deacon for the last 14 years. As part of Saint Dennis Lighthouse Ministries, he has made mission trips to Belize, first to Orange Walk and later to San Ignacio.

Hendrickson says it “sometimes feels like everyone” in Belize is Catholic, though he acknowledges a rise in the number of Catholics who have converted to evangelical Protestantism. Additionally, a rising proportion of Belizeans identify as having no religion. Reports of the percentage of persons in Belize who are Catholic can range from 40 percent up to 76 percent.

There are also significant numbers of Anglicans, Pentecostals, and Seventh-Day Adventists, along with a notably large Mennonite community (as much as 4 percent of the total population), many of whom speak German.

Hendrickson relates that the different faiths have a good relationship with each other. “It seems that the people of Belize get along with everyone,” he said.

But friendly dispositions can only go so far to alleviate the heavy presence of drugs and widespread poverty that has created a volatile and often lethal cocktail in a nation with a homicide rate more than seven times higher than the USA.

Belize has become a major transit point for drugs headed to the US from South America. In some cases, drug traffickers have used Belizean highways as landing strips for their cargo. While protection routes for these narcotics may not be worth dying for, many consider them worth killing for.

With a population of about 60,000, Belize City would be little more than a town in many countries, and yet it has enough homicides for a metropolis. At one point in recent years, it had the world’s fourth-highest urban homicide rate.

Though Belize City’s crime understandably receives the most headlines, other locations in the country have more than their share of violence. The capital city of Belmopan recorded 11 murders in 2017. This sounds like a modest number, until one considers that Belmopan has only about 16,000 residents. The US Overseas Security Advisory Council reports that “major crimes” are no longer solely concentrated in Belize City, and have shifted to other districts in the country, including rural areas, which have also seen the murders of foreign expats.

Hendrickson points out that, in an effort to mitigate crime, the Church works with the poor and ministers to them, and also works with gang members in Belize City.

The website of St. Martin de Porres Parish in Belize mentions, among other endeavors, a program involving job training and placement for at-risk youths.

No Belizean has been beatified or canonized. Nor does it appear that anyone has received the designation of Venerable or Servant of God. This makes it difficult to identify a particular person most admired in the history of the Church in Belize, though Hendrickson points to Deacon Donald Kosteki, a 63-year-old American deacon who served in Belize. In 2005, Kosteki was found stabbed to death outside his residence in San Ignacio Town. Hendrickson says the Catholic people in Belize “talk about him often, as he was loved dearly.”

Belize has produced few seminarians in recent decades. Hendrickson can think of only one seminary in the country. In fact, he and other volunteers “spent a lot of time fixing the place up.” However, this facility has since closed.

Though Hendrickson knows three priests who are native Belizeans, he says that most come from El Salvador and Guatemala.

As in many parts of the world, just because people identify as Catholic doesn’t necessarily mean they attend church consistently. Hendrickson isn’t sure what percent of Catholics in Belize are consistent church attendees, but he admits that attendance is less than stellar at the four churches where he serves.

However, even with the country lacking an active seminary and frequent church attendance proving rather elusive, Hendrickson remains optimistic about the future of the Church in Belize. “The people of Belize, even though they don’t attend Church in large numbers, love talking about their faith and look to the Church for sacraments,” he says.

Hendrickson adds that the Church is “helping when possible” when it comes to violence and corruption, but that it simply does not have enough money to initiate programs that might yield widespread crime-reduction. He describes the poverty he sees in Belize as “staggering” and expects that, 10 years from now, the situation with drugs and violence will be “probably worse.”

About Ray Cavanaugh 7 Articles
Ray Cavanaugh is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). He has written for such publications as The Guardian, USA Today, and the Washington Post.

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