One year ago, 2022 was shaping up to be a hinge year. The worst of the COVID-19 pandemic seemed behind us, and some countries were starting to see an economic improvement. Life generally regained some sense of normalcy. But appearances can be deceiving.

While, globally, there are an estimated 1,100 mission territories – places where the Catholic Church is too young or too poor to sustain itself – in 2022, three mission territories were particularly filled with violence and persecution. These sad makers of “news that shouldn’t have been” – the Russian invasion of Ukraine; the arbitrary arrest of a bishop and several priests in Nicaragua; and the kidnapping of 28 Catholic priests in Nigeria – all made 2022 a difficult year.

Ukraine – a lesson of hope amid despair

Vladimir Putin’s incursion in Ukraine was not a surprise to close observers, but the scale with which his army entered the neighboring sovereign nation shocked virtually all. The local Catholic Church was at the forefront of humanitarian efforts, building kitchens in makeshift underground shelters in the houses of prayer, distributing aid and sending priests to the frontlines to offer spiritual support to the soldiers.

The Greek Ukrainian Catholic Church (UGCC) became the face of the Ukrainians’ strong faith during these past 10 months. Just a generation ago, during the Soviet era, the UGCC was the largest illegal religious body in the world, and it suffered mightily for it. Approximately 3,000 priests died in the gulags, and by the time Ukraine regained its independence, only 300 were left – and not all of them in Ukraine.

After the fall of communism, the Church experienced a rebirth: After 3.5 million faithful had been driven underground, with almost all of their property confiscated, a post-Soviet, independent Ukraine allowed the UGCC to reemerge. From that point, it rose from the catacombs with miraculous growth. Today, this Church claims more than 7 million faithful and 3,000 priests, with more than 800 seminarians and an average of 100 priests ordained each year.

Now, amid another dramatic shift of history, the local Church needs prayers and economic support for their spiritual and material well-being. Funding helps keep those kitchens, shelters and humanitarian aid centers running, plus provides a plethora of other services, including psychological support, to the survivors of terrible violence. 

Nicaragua, an unbroken bishop

Another seemingly unexpected, but at the same time anticipated, tragedy in mission territories this year was the illegal imprisonment in Nicaragua of Bishop Rolando Alvarez of Matagalpa, along with several priests from his diocese.

The government of President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, is currently waging a war against the Catholic Church. Bishop Alvarez’s arrest was the drop that overflowed a bucket that had been filling since the civil uprising of 2018. In the four subsequent years, the Church suffered 190 attacks, ranging from a Molotov bomb in the cathedral of Managua to bishops having shots fired at their cars.

During 2021, the government imprisoned every opposition leader who voiced an interest in running for the presidential elections. They remain in jail, and in most cases, their families haven’t heard from them since their arrests. With only Catholic bishops – particularly Bishop Alvarez and Bishop Silvio Baez, auxiliary of Managua, who has been in exile at Pope Francis’ direct order since 2019 – left to oppose the ruling couple, the government began to slowly clear the path that led to Alvarez’s arrest -- and thus their hold on power.

Nicaragua has had no ambassador to the Holy See since August 2021. That November, the Nicaraguan government annulled the figure of “dean of the diplomatic corps” by decree. In March 2022, its government declared the papal representative, Polish Archbishop Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, persona non grata and expelled him from the country. Soon after, the closing of Catholic TV and radio stations began, as did the closure of Catholic NGOs, including the charitable organization run by the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Theresa. They had been accused of being terrorists.

On Aug. 19, 2022, after two weeks of virtual arrest in the curia house, Bishop Alvarez was taken away by police in a convoy made up of at least eight patrol cars at approximately 3 a.m. He was accused of what Murillo called “crimes against spirituality.” He has been under arrest since, and his “trial” is set to start in January.

Nigeria, concerns about the survival of Christianity

Finally, third in the list of stories that shouldn’t have happened in mission territories in 2022, is the murder of 12 priests and five religious sisters, as well as the kidnapping of 51 more priests and religious sisters. Twenty-eight total were kidnapped and four were murdered in Nigeria, which according to World Population Review has the sixth largest Christian population in the world. There has been no news for months about two of the kidnapped in Nigeria, including a German missionary priest.

Nigeria is an African superpower, and, as one of the most religiously dynamic places on the planet, it contains the largest mix of Muslims and Christians in the world. Missionaries are threatened here, on the one hand, by terrorist organizations such as Boko Haram, but also by endemic violence, which is only growing.

The situation is so dire that, according to the newly created Cardinal Peter Okpaleke of the diocese of Ekwulobia, there is reason to be concerned “about the survival of Christianity, the life and safety of our people as well as the stability of the West African sub-region if Nigeria were to tip over.”

For many years, Islamist fundamentalist groups held sway in some parts of the country. Recently, they have successfully mounted major attacks close to the national capital, Abuja.

These are three very diverse countries, with very diverse problems, challenges and battles facing them with the dawn of a new year. One thing they all have in common, however, is the fact that, as mission territories, they rely on the support of the universal Church, which should all unite to support their uphill battle for a more peaceful world – a world in which the Gospel message is heard and spread.

Ines San Martin is the senior communications consultant for the Pontifical Mission Societies USA.