Pope John Paul in Managua


There was the weightiness of history to the moment above. Canossa perhaps or the memories of the papacies of the Renaissance and the Inquistion perhaps. A pope wagging finger at a kneeling man on the airport tarmac.

It was 1983 and Pope John Paul II was in Managua — on his first visit to Nicaragua. The kneeling priest was Ernesto Cardenal, who was then serving as the Minister of Culture in the country’s Sandinista government.

Although the Church played a major role in the fall of the Somoza regime in Nicaragua, it was split on its successors, with Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo of Managua leading sharp critics of the Sandinistas, and younger liberation theology priests like Cardenal joining the Sandinistas’ Marxist-Leninist revolution. For years, there was an ongoing feud of words and sometimes physical intimidation between two factions of the church.

The pope wasn’t there for a reconciliation. Even before his visit, the pope had been publicly demanding that Father Cardenal and four other priests (including his brother Fernando Cardenal, then education minister) resign their government positions. The Sandinistas also refused the Vatican’s demand to replace them, but insisted that its invitation to the pope still stood.

The pope, as equally minted as the Sandinistas (both had come to power in that pivot year of 1979), was undaunted by this defiance. But as he walked down the receiving line at the airport, decorated with a banner that said “Welcome to Free Nicaragua – Thanks to God and the Revolution,” he was still taken aback to see the priests (the Vatican had specificed that none of the priest-ministers should appear in the welcoming party) and especially Cardenal. Unlike other priests in clerical garb, he had showed up wearing a collarless white shirt, slacks and his signature black beret over his thick white hair. When he knelt to kiss the papal ring, the pope withheld his hand and wagged his finger at him.

His subsequent scolding was not audible, but the moment was broadcast around the world and the photo above was on the frontpage of newspapers. It was later recounted that the pope told Father Cardenal, “You must regularize your position with the church. You must sort out your affairs with the church.”

It was to be a challenging visit for the pope.

Later that day Sandinista supporters heckled him at mass when he asked the citizenry to reject the “popular church” that is allied with the revolutionary government and to accept the absolute authority of the Vatican. The Sandinistas partisans who were strategically placed at the head of the crowd of about 350,000 began replied by chanting: “One church on the side of the poor!” and “We want peace!” The Pope countered combatively. “Silencio!” he commanded – and then twice more until the hecklers were cowed.  

At the end of the Mass, the Sandinistas played their anthem, after which the pope was driven back to the airport, where he was again greeted by the junta supremo Daniel Ortega (in glasses on the left in photo above), who reproached him for not praying for seventeen youths killed by the US-backed rebels, known as the Contras and defended the behavior of the Sandinistas during the Mass.

The pope left, insulted.

For the pope, brought up in Soviet Poland, Marxism was an existential evil. He returned to the Vatican in a combatively mood. On his next major trip, three motnhs after Nicaragua, he returned to Poland to denounce the government there as running “one great concentration camp”. He would also soon suspend Cardenal and other priests from the priesthood — the ban that would not be lifted until three decades later — and put the founding father of liberation theology, the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, under investigation by the Vatican’s guardian of doctrinal orthodoxy, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

“Christ led me to Marx,” Cardenal reflected in an interview in 1984. “I don’t think the pope understands Marxism. For me, the four gospels are all equally communist. I’m a Marxist who believes in God, follows Christ, and is a revolutionary for the sake of his kingdom.”

On his second trip to Nicaragua in 1996, the pope referred to the earlier visit: “I remember the celebration of 13 years ago; it took place in darkness, on a great dark night.” By then, the Sandinistas were gone. They had been subjected to the widespread violence from the Contras, and were finally thrown out in a general election in 1990, also marred by massive America interference. Cardenal left his government office in 1987, having fallen out with the junta’s head, Daniel Ortega, and when Ortega returned to power in 2007, he would condemn the government as a thieving monarchy.



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The Papal Assassination Attempt

On 13 May 1981 in St Peter’s Square an attempt was made on the life of Pope John Paul II. The assassin, who was quickly apprehended, but not before his bullets hit the pope four times, was one Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turk who had escaped from prison in his country.

The pope was wounded in the abdomen, left hand and right arm; “Mary, my mother,” John Paul gasped as he collapsed. Yet, he quickly made full recovery even though a 41-hour operation removed part of his intestine and replaced almost all his blood with transfusions.

The background of the assassination attempt has never been satisfactorily explained. Ali Agca, a lapsed Muslim who had links to a Turkish ultranationalist group, the Gray Wolves, never explained his motives. He suggested that the K.G.B. and Bulgarian intelligence were involved, but later retracted those claims. Investigators founded tantalizing details that seemed to support some of his assertions, but nothing was proved, and three Bulgarians and three Turks arrested in connection to the case were released.

Ali Agca, however, received life imprisonment, and remained in prison until June 2000, when he was officially pardoned. However, he had long been forgiven by the pope, both publicly from his hospital bed, and privately when he went to visit Ali Agca in prison. On that moving occasion, Ali Agca knelt and kissed the Fisherman’s ring in a sign of respect; he did not ask for forgiveness. Instead, he said, “I know I was aiming right. I know that the bullet was a killer, So why aren’t you dead?”

Over the years, John Paul, who was very mystical for a pope, had always asked himself the same question. The fact that the bullets missed vital organs by millimetres confirmed the near messianic sense of his mission on earth. John Paul always maintained that his survival was a miracle, and that he had been spared for some divine purpose.

The assassination had been attempted on the anniversary of the day in 1917 when three shepherd children first allegedly saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary in Fatima, Portugal, and John Paul II credited the Madonna of Fatima with saving his life. The near fatal bullet was fitted into a jeweled crown worn by her statue. In May 2000, the Vatican revealed that the third part of the vision imparted to the children at Fatima, which was long kept secret, had been an assassination attempt on a pope.



The Pope in Poland


In 1981, the streets of Warsaw were guarded by tanks and lined with small bonfires to warm the hands of military patrols. On Dec. 13, 1981, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, Poland’s Prime Minister, imposed martial law, initiating a brutal 19-month crackdown on the pro-democracy Solidarity trade-union movement in which an estimated 90 people were killed and 10,000 detained. This series of events greatly bothered Pope John Paul II, himself a pope.

So, in June 1983, he travelled to Poland. On 17th June, at Belvedere Palace, the official residence of the Prime Minister, he met with Premier Jaruzelski. The pope traveled to his home country to support a revolt against communism and movement for democracy led by Lech Walesa. Jaruzelski himself was a moderate (when compared to the other communist leaders of the Eastern Europe) and the papal gesture combined with the moderates on the both of the conflicts led to the Round Table Talks that eventually led to the democratization of Poland in 1989.