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The Jesuits and their Sandinista brothers publicly humiliate John Paul II

John Paul II visited Central America March, 1983. PHOTO:
John Paul II visited Central America March, 1983. PHOTO:
John Paul II visited Central America March, 1983. PHOTO:

Wojtyla's dreams for solidarity seemed dismal after the shooting and his bout with hepatitis. He'd lost his closest ally, Cardinal Wyszynski, and his physical strength was not what it once was. The Pope needed time to regroup and focus on other more timely issues.

By 1982, the Soviets and Cuba were supplying Central America with funds for supplies, manpower and technology. Anti-Sandinista guerrillas backed by the CIA were operating in Nicaragua and Honduras, sparking protests from Catholic media in the United States, Canada and Europe.

John Paul's concern for that area of the world was the survival of Roman Catholicism, for it was facing deadly enemies such as those not seen since Martin Luther. Jesuit politicians—particularly Fernando Cardenal—cast a spiritual persona on Marxism that made such a regime palatable to the predominantly Catholic Nicaraguans.

The Sandinistas recognized the need for this strong connection between their cause and the Church and stopped at nothing to protect it. Those religious who dared to oppose them were demeaned and bullied. Father Bismark Carballo was accused of sexual immorality; Managua's Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo—a relentless proponent of the resignation of all priests from government positions—was roughed up by Sandinista thugs.

The Cardenal brothers saw no harm in these tactics. In 1982, Fernando Cardenal responded to an ecclesiastical censure on the Jesuits with a simple reply: "We are free men." No one, he declared, could force them to resign.

John Paul had not despaired, however, determined to correct the root of the Jesuits' falling away. An audience was scheduled with the Dezza and his General Assistant for February 27, 1982. He was going to be straightforward, firm. He would state his demands for a return to the religious life, forsaking their political attachments for a spiritual approach to helping the poor.

The day of the audience brought forced smiles and cordial diplomacy. Pedro Arrupe was well enough to concelebrate Mass in the Church of the Gesù beforehand. His sermon contained the usual patronizing compliments to John Paul and encouragement to the Society for utmost obedience.

John Paul arrived after the Mass and greeted Arrupe in much the same cordial way, as if there was not a shred of animosity between them. Once everyone was seated and attentive, Wojtyla began his speech—his plan to once and for all reach the Jesuits and set them back on the right path; firm discipline was all they really needed.

The implications of his address were both threatening and reproachful, and were obviously intended for all 26, 622 members of the Order. Three-quarters of the speech (the Italian, French, and English sections) told the Pontiff's audience plainly what they should and should not be and do, as well as the Pope's own intentions and wishes for them. He was clear that ". . . There is no room for deviation . . ." and that, "Since the Roman Pontiff is a bishop and head of the hierarchy, Jesuits are to be obedient to bishops as to the Pope, head of all bishops." (1)

John Paul reminded them that religious do not follow the ways of men of this world. Their boundaries are supernatural, rather than the temptations of power, riches and politics. He would no longer tolerate any Jesuit who rejected the traditions set by the Society over four hundred years ago. "Your proper activity is not in the temporal realm," the Pope reminded them, "nor in that one which is the field of laymen and which must be left to them."

He reminded them that St. Ignatius was first and foremost obedient to the Throne of Peter, and encouraged superiors not to hesitate to discipline the rebellious. Lastly, almost as a reward for their anticipated good behavior, Wojtyla gave his consent to the election of a new Father General. (2)

Most of John Paul's seventy-five-minute speech fell on deaf ears. The only message the Jesuits walked away with was that they were now allowed to elect their own Jesuit General. What they heard was, "I had to act in a somewhat frightening manner by removing Pedro Arrupe and Vincent O'Keefe. But now that we have got together, things are all right." (3)

The concern of many of the Provincial Superiors who actually paid attention was the implication that they would have to obey the home bishops. Their reaction to that command was best summed up in response to a reporter's question to one of the Jesuit General Assistant's, asking if they had "finally surrendered to the Pope."

"Don’t you believe it!" was the response.

Provincial Delegates reported back home that John Paul had apologized for removing Arrupe from his position as Father General.

"We have been happy to come here," one Provincial commented to a newsman, "and listen to the Pope. Now we will return home and remain silent for a time, avoiding any spectacular gestures or publications or criticisms of the Pope. Later on, we will elect the Father General of our choice. And nothing will change." (4)

John Paul instituted the second phase of his plan by sending a June 29th letter to the Nicaraguan bishops, openly denouncing the "People's Church."

John Paul denounced the "People's Church" in harsh and pointed terms. This church "born of the people," he quoted its clerical founders in Nicaragua, was a new invention that was both "absurd" and of "perilous character." Only with difficulty, John Paul went on, could it avoid being infiltrated by "strangely ideological connotations along the line of a certain political radicalization, for accomplishing determined aims. . ." (5)

Recognizing the damage that such a letter from His Holiness could cause, the Sandinista leaders did everything in their power to suppress it from the people. They were unsuccessful, however, and so were forced to go into damage control.

A barrage of criticism permeated the airways and appeared in both the United States and Nicaragua, accusing Rome of interfering with the political affairs of Nicaragua, a sovereign state. Vatican II, they claimed, renamed the Roman Catholic Church the "People of God." The Pope denounced his priests for politicking, yet was aligning himself with the Reagan administration that was backing contras terrorists on Nicaraguan soil.

When the Jesuit Superiors of Nicaragua publicly disassociated themselves from the Pope's remarks, Superior General Paolo Dezza sent a response to Fernando Cardenal, ordering him to resign from his government position.

In an act of blatant disobedience, Cardenal responded with a formal request for Dezza's reasons for such an order, informing him that once received, he would "reflect" on them. Instead of demanding that Cardenal comply, Dezza responded with the tone "of a man asking a favor of a stubborn colleague and equal."

Cardenal's work with the Sandinistas was beyond reproach, Dezza wrote, and there were no reasons for asking Cardenal to resign beyond the fact that this Pope kept insisting that he and other priests retire from government and politics. The message in sum, was clear: If it weren't for this Pope, we would leave you be, Father Fernando. (6)

Cardenal went public with Dezza's response, interpreting the message as without any valid reasons for his resignation, demeaning it as "just an order from the Pope." Needless to say, Cardenal paid no attention to Dezza's order, with full support of his superiors both in Nicaragua and in Rome.

John Paul made plans to once again visit Central America, to speak directly to the people and clarify the Church's position on the "People's Church." His itinerary included visits to Nicaragua, Panama, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, and Haiti. Nicaragua was his focus; something had to be done to stop the madness.

Arrangements for the papal visit ensued between the Pope's personal representative in Managua, Monsignore Andrea Cordero Lanza de Montezemolo, and Daniel Ortega y Saavedra. Ortega did everything he could to oppose Wojtyla's conditions for the trip.

The Pope insisted that a crucifix be placed over the altar for Mass and that the backdrop for the altar could not project any revolutionary statement, whatsoever. He was well aware that it had become common practice in the "People's Church" to eliminate the crucifix and decorate the altar with political messages.

Then Wojtyla brought out the big guns: either Cardenal and Arguello, and three other Jesuits holding cabinet positions in the Nicaraguan government resign, or the trip is off.

Cardenal responded to the Pope's demands with indifference, stating that a papal visit would only harm the Christian revolution and it would be better if he not come at all. If he was not willing to drop his "dictatorial" demands, then he was not welcome in Nicaragua.

Wojtyla had to put his mission ahead of his pride, dismissing Cardenal's slap in the face. With only one of his conditions met—that of the backdrop for his Mass—John Paul chose to go. Arrangements were finalized; he would be in Nicaragua March 4.

Unbeknownst to the Pope, details of his speeches and his intentions while in Nicaragua were delivered in advance to the Sandinista rulers by traitors in his own camp—including some in the Pope's own Secretariat of State. As a result a Sandinista-style ambush was planned well in advance; they were ready for him.

The Pope's Alitalia DC-10 landed at Managua's César Augusto Sandino Airport amid a barrage of cameras and curious onlookers. Sandinista dignitaries waited patiently to fire the first shot.

First in line to meet John Paul was Daniel Ortega, himself. Every word of his proceeding twenty-five minute rant against the United States was covered by the worldwide press. Wojtyla stood motionless with an appearance of disinterest, until it was his turn to speak.

John Paul's moment finally came to speak in reply to Ortega's bellicose and deliberately discourteous "welcoming" speech. The Pontiff's prepared remarks in praise of Managua's Archbishop Obando y Bravo were greeted with perfectly timed hoots of derision from the organized and well-marshaled Sandinista claque. His words denouncing the "People's Church" as a "grave deviation from the will and salvation of Jesus Christ" were all but drowned out from first to last by loud and continuing shouts and catcalls. (8)

Pain and anger resonated in John Paul's voice. As he continued down the receiving line, the absence of Jesuit cabinet members sent a clear message. Maryknoll Father Miguel D'Escoto, Jesuit Fathers Edgar Parrales, Alvaro Arguello, and Fernando Cardenal all had something better to do. Only Father Ernest Cardenal took time out of his day to welcome His Holiness.

Cardenal dropped to one knee as John Paul approached. The Pope made a point of stopping directly in front of him as Cardenal removed his beret and put out his hand to kiss the Pope's ring. Instead, John Paul shook his finger at Cardenal in disgust. "You must regularize your situation!" the Pope said sternly. Again, he repeated his message for emphasis. "You must regularize your situation!" Cardenal responded with only a smile.

John Paul left the airport for a visit to León. Mass was to be celebrated that evening in the Plaza of July 19. (9)

An estimated 600,000 people were in attendance that night, all prearranged in specific blocs. A span of revolutionary billboards lined the perimeter of one side of the plaza. Facing those billboards at the opposite end of the plaza, a humble, linen-draped table sat on a long wooden platform. This was to be the altar used for the celebration of Mass.

Two official viewing stands were set up on either side of the platform, facing the crowds. Here sat the three-man Junta and nine-man National Directorate, dressed in army fatigues—almost as if lying in wait for the ambush.

Contrary to the Pope's wishes, the backdrop to the altar was a massive mural of Carlos Fonseca Amador and Augusto César Sandino. (10) Above the altar, in place of where the crucifix should have been hanging, was another long banner stating: "John Paul is here. Thanks to God and the Revolution!"

The Pope paid little attention as he began Mass, to the undertone of continuous sounds and occasional singing and chanting—something not out of the ordinary for such a massive crowd.

When he prepared to deliver his homily, however, a crowd from the People's Church broke out into a rhythm of thunderous revolutionary slogans. Even his microphone was not loud enough to silence the cheers. The louder he spoke, the louder they cheered, determined to silence him.

"Power to the People!"

"National Directorate, give us your orders!"

"Speak to us of the poor!"

John Paul sliced at the air in violent gestures, but the crowd continued. His face became livid with indignation as he shouted, "Silencio!" igniting the fury of the crowd even more.

He shouted his order again: "Silencio!"

The crowd was out of control, chanting, "Power to the People! Christ lives in the People's Church!"

Filled with rage, the Pope shouted, "Miskito Power!" as he glared angrily at the Junta in the stands. (11)

The crowd went wild as military commanders and National Directorate leapt to their feet, fists clenched, urging the crowds on. Someone connected the microphones in the stands to the main loudspeaker system that the Pope was using and prerecorded tape of crowds chanting Sandinista slogans drowned John Paul out.

John Paul walked away from the podium without finishing his sermon. But the slogans never stopped—even during the Consecration.

The airways were filled with indignation after the Pope's departure from the airport, calling him the pope of imperialism, trying to convert Nicaragua into another Poland, and even trying to make the Church commit suicide.

Fernando Cardenal's response was short and to the point: "The Pope's speech was a declaration of war."


(1) Ibid., p. 109.
(2) After Arrupe's stroke, John Paul appointed Paola Dezza as an interim Superior General.
(3) Martin, p. 111.
(4) Ibid., p. 111.
(5) Ibid., p. 112.
(6) Ibid., p. 113.
(8) Ibid., p. 117.
(9) The Plaza of July 19, was named for the day in 1979 when the Somoza dictatorship had been smashed and the Marxist Junta of the Sandinistas had taken power.
(10) Carlos Fonseca Amador was a hero-martyr of the Sandinista revolution; Augusto César Sandino is the man in whose name the Sandinistas made their revolution.
(11) The Miskito Indians were in dire opposition to the Sandinistas, and the Junta had been doing its utmost to liquidate them.