Pope Francis accepts resignation of Panamanian cardinal who went missing

Cardinal José Luis Lacunza Cardinal José Luis Lacunza resigned as bishop of the Diocese of David in Panama Feb. 15, 2024, two weeks after his disappearance that has not yet been explained. | Credit: Daniel Ibáñez/ACI Prensa

The Vatican Press Office reported Feb. 15 that Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Cardinal José Luis Lacunza Maestrojuán as bishop of the Diocese of David in Panama, two weeks after his yet-to-be-explained disappearance, and named Father Luis Enrique Saldaña Guerra as his successor.

The appointment occurs a few days before Lacunza turns 80 on Feb. 24, the day on which he will cease to be an elector in a possible conclave to elect Pope Francis’ successor should he die or resign.

The Panamanian Bishops’ Conference published a statement Feb. 15 expressing their “gratitude to Cardinal José Luis Lacunza and welcoming the designated bishop of the Diocese of David,” noting that the Holy Father accepted the resignation of the cardinal “after almost five years” since he complied with the provisions of Canon 401.1 of the Code of Canon Law,” which requests bishops to present their resignation to the pope at the age of 75.

The apostolic nunciature in Panama posted a statement on X Feb. 15, explaining that “the new bishop will communicate in due time, the day, place and time of his episcopal ordination, and consequently the canonical taking possession of the Diocese of David.”

The cardinal’s disappearance

On the morning of Feb. 1, the Catholic Church in Panama reported that Lacunza had been missing since Jan. 30. The cardinal was found by the police later that afternoon.

On Feb. 4, the cardinal apologized for what had happened, although he did not explain what transpired. A day later, the nation’s attorney general, Javier Caraballo, said that the bishop was being treated as a victim, so his right to “privacy” would be respected.

It is still not known precisely what happened to Lacunza or why the Catholic Church and civil authorities remain silent about it. Nor is it known what the cardinal’s “prank” may have been, as he himself described what took place.

It is not yet known whether the Vatican or Pope Francis have been formally informed about what happened to Panama’s first cardinal. ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner, reached out to Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni about the matter but did not receive a response by press time.

In addition, the results of the medical exam Lacunza underwent have not been made public beyond some generalities, and it has not been reported whether the cardinal suffers from any ailment.

Who is the new bishop?

Father Luis Enrique Saldaña Guerra was also born on Feb. 24, but in 1966, so in just a little more than a week he will turn 58.

He studied philosophy at Rafael Landívar University in Guatemala and theology at José Simeón Cañas Central American University in El Salvador.

He made his solemn profession in the Franciscans on Feb. 23, 2002, and was ordained a priest on April 29, 2006.

He has held, among others, the following positions: formator of novices and Franciscan brothers; parochial vicar; guardian in the fraternity of the parishes of St. John the Baptist in Boquete, Panama, Our Lady of Mount Carmel in David, Panama, and St. Anthony of Padua in Miraflores, Panama; guardian at the Virgen del Socorro Fraternity in La Antigua, Guatemala; and Franciscan provincial definitor of Panama (2008–2017).

He has also been the administrative director of the Pius XII Franciscan Schools in Boquete, Panama, and St. Francis of Assisi in David as well as deputy director of the Social Works of St. Peter of Betancurt in La Antigua, Guatemala.

Since 2021 he has been provincial minister of the Franciscan Province of Our Lady of Guadalupe of Central America and the Caribbean located in Guatemala.

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This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.

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