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Panama Cardinal Who Bucked Noriega Surfaces After Unexplained Disappearance…

NEW YORK – Panamanian Cardinal José Luis Lacunza Maestrojuán was found sometime in the afternoon on Feb. 1 after he had been reported missing on Jan. 30, according to a news release from Panama’s bishops’ conference.

“The Communication Office of the Panamanian Episcopal Conference informs that Cardinal José Luis Lacunza Maestrojuán, bishop of the Diocese of David, has been found, according to a report from authorities,” the conference announced around 4:00 p.m. ET on Feb. 1.

The statement was published in Spanish and translated by Crux. The statement did not provide any information as to Lacunza’s condition, where he was found, or the circumstances of his disappearance.

A brief statement from local police likewise said that Lacunza had been found “safe and sound” in Boquete, an area of western Panama near his diocese. A video posted on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, showed an agent of the police speaking with the 79-year-old Lacunza through the window of a car, with the police statement saying that Lacunza had appeared “disoriented” but healthy.

The Diocese of David first publicized that Lacunza was missing mid-morning on Feb. 1, announcing that they had reported his disappearance to authorities and that an investigation was underway. Alarms had first gone off when Lacunza failed to turn up for a scheduled Jan. 31 Mass for the feast of St. John Bosco, founder of the Salesian religious order, and efforts to reach him on his cellular phone were unsuccessful.

As the day wore on, church leaders in Panama, and from his religious order in Rome, asked for prayers.

Lacunza, who will turn 80 on Feb. 24, is a native of Pamplona, Spain. Created a cardinal by Pope Francis in 2015, he’s the first cardinal in the history of the Panamanian church. Known as the “bishop of dialogue,” Lacunza has been a prominent figure in Panama due to his ardent defense of indigenous persons, as well as Cuban and Central American migrants.

Lacunza is also known for the role he played in resisting the dictatorship of Manuel Noriega in the 1980s, when the future cardinal served as an auxiliary bishop of Panama City.

A member of the Order of the Augustinian Recollects in Spain, Lacunza was ordained a priest in 1969 in Pamplona. Pope Saint John Paul II appointed Lacunza an auxiliary bishop of Panama in 1985, with the titular see of Partenia, and he was ordained to the episcopate on Jan. 18, 1986.

John Paul II named him Bishop of Chitré in 1994. He was then named Bishop of David in 1999.

Lacunza has served two stints as president of the Episcopal Conference of Panamá, from 2000-2004 and from 2007-2013. Since 2015, he has also been president of the Economic Committee of the Latin American Episcopal Council (C.E.L.A.M).

Lacunza was also appointed by Francis to participate in the 2015 Synod of Bishops on the Family. In Rome, he is a member of the Dicastery for Culture and Education, and the Pontifical Commission for Latin America.

Though threats against Catholic clergy, including kidnappings for ransom, are not unknown in Central America, Panama is largely considered an exception to the regional norm, with relatively low levels of violent crime and a fairly sparse presence of criminal gangs.

Follow John Lavenburg on X: @johnlavenburg

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