Topic: The Pope's 1983 Visit to Nicaragua
Written 2:19 PM Feb 6, 1996 by nicanet in cdp:reg.nicaragua
The 1983 Visit of Pope John Paul II to
By Katherine Hoyt, March 1983
With all the misinformation being published right now about Pope John Paul II's previous visit
to Nicaragua in March of 1983, I decided that I would make available a letter I wrote to my
parents a few days after that visit. By the time of this letter, I had been living in Nicaragua for 15
years, most of that time in Matagalpa. As a Catholic, I felt that the opportunity to attend a Mass
celebrated by the Pope was a very momentous one. It was momentous, but not in the way I
expected. Now, 13 years later, following the lead of the Sandinistas, I had not wanted to rake up
bad old memories. But since others are doing so and twisting the facts as I remember them, I felt
moved to answer.
Nicaragua Network Education Fund
March 16, 1983
Dear Folks-Well, I promised to write about the Pope's visit and so I guess I must even though I would rather
not even think about it much less write about it! I feel that the visit to Central America as a whole
has meant a return to a pre-1967 Church: before Paul VI's encyclical "Popularum Progressio"-which specified the cases in which insurrection and rebellion would be justified--and the 1968
Latin American Bishops Conference at Medellin, Colombia, which gave the big push to
On this recent visit John Paul II spoke in words easily understood by the Right as support for its
cause: You peasants live in unjust and inhuman conditions but don't be tempted to rise up in arms
against your oppressors; and Archbishop Romero was a martyr but we must not allow his
memory to be manipulated politically, etc., etc. But this I'm sure you know. What you'd like to
know is our experience of his visit here.
Well, the government and the Church working together made a tremendous effort to mobilize all
means of transportation available in the country so that 800,000 people, approximately 36% of
the total population, saw the Pope, either in Leon or in Managua. (Older people, children under
12 and pregnant women were asked not to brave the heat.) Everyone who wanted to go had the
Victoria [my 13 year old daughter] and I went on the bus to Managua two days ahead. We saw
on television his arrival at the airport with Daniel Ortega's very appropriate (but, I hear, badly
received by the U.S. press) quotation from a 1921 letter from Bishop Pereira of Leon to U.S.
Cardinal Simpson protesting U.S. intervention in his country. The Pope was even then quite cool
and we could see that he lectured Father Ernesto Cardenal, but his airport speech was pretty
good. The service in Leon went off quite well. The only objectionable thing that he said in his
homily was about the "strict right of believing parents" to not see their children submitted in the
schools to "programs inspired in atheism," something that has never been contemplated here.
Well, after watching all this on TV, we ate lunch, I put on my sunscreen and we (Victoria and I)
took off walking on the prescribed route to the Plaza [19 of July]. It took us almost an hour, from
1:40 to 2:30, to get there. (Access to the Plaza was completely open, by the way.) First we got
behind some people who had brought ice chests and stools so because they stood on the stools
and blocked our view, we moved over to the right among simpler folk. (It turned out that that
first group was composed of Archbishop Obando supporters--there were maybe 40 or 50
thousand of them all together right up in front.) Most of the crowd where we were was composed
of simple Christian revolutionaries, women of AMNLAE [the women's association], peasants of
the ATC [farmworkers association] who had had their hopes falsely raised by all sides, church
and state, that the Pope was going to say some words of consolation to the families which daily
lose loved ones to the counterrevolution, especially since just the day before 17 outstanding
members of the Sandinista Youth Organization, killed in an ambush, had been buried after a
memorial program in this very same plaza. Certainly if the head of a foreign state visits a country
the day after a busload of teen-agers killed in an accident have been buried, he is expected to
make SOME sympathetic remarks. However, the Pope studiously avoided making ANY
sympathetic words either publicly or privately to the Mothers of Heroes and Martyrs who gave
him their petition for peace. He could have said a few words of sympathy and won over that
crowd easily and satisfied the Sandinista leaders who weren't expecting more than a crumb. Then
it wouldn't have mattered how strongly he spoke about Church unity under the bishops. Both
sides would have been both satisfied and disappointed. But he was extremely careful not to give
even a crumb to the revolution and I think no one expected this unrelieved bleakness.
The Mass began at 5:00 and as the revolutionaries in the crowd began to get the idea of the way
things were going, they began to demand "A prayer for our dead," "We want peace," and "We
want a church on the side of the poor."
When that terrible sermon (which demanded that we abandon our "unacceptable ideological
commitments" for the faith) was half over I began to feel sick as a result of two and one half
hours standing in the sun in the crowd and extreme distress at the direction the Pope was taking.
Victoria insisted that we move back to a place where the crowd was less dense and we could sit
down and buy some water in plastic bags. By this time the sun had gone down, the horizon was
red from so much dust raised on the outer edges of the Plaza, people were chanting "people
power, people power" now, too, along with "We want peace," and the Pope was having a hard
time moving along with the Mass. At the silence between the consecration of the bread and that
of the wine, a women broke in with a megaphone to say (in respectful tones, actually), "Holy
Father, we beg you for a prayer for our loved ones who have been murdered," or something very
similar. The Lord's Prayer somehow never got said and only a few people were given
communion (one was the mother of Daniel and Humberto Ortega who was with the Mothers of
Heroes and Martyrs, having lost another son, Camilo, in 1978). Finally at 8:00 p.m., the Pope
gave the last blessing and was off while the vast majority of the crowd stayed at attention to hear
the Sandinista Anthem.
Daniel Ortega's impromptu speech at the airport as the Pope left was enough to make one cry. He
almost begged the Pope to make one solid proposal for peace in Nicaragua, to say one word, to
give that one crumb that he was not willing to give. We heard only part of it as we were walking
back to Toyita's house, dirty exhausted and I, of course very distressed by the whole visit and
certain we were headed for schism. One of the last slogans somebody had cried out as the Mass
was ending was one of anguished defiance: "Because of Christ and His Gospels, we are
revolutionaries." That seemed to just about sum things up.
While I showered, I turned the radio on to the BBC 9:00p.m. news. The British announcer, in
typical understatement, said that the Pope had just finished saying the "most unusual Mass of his
career in Managua, Nicaragua."
Of course it was a boost for the counter-revolutionaries and we are seeing an increase in the
number of battles right now, some close to Matagalpa--near San Ramon and San Dionisio--and
all anybody talks about is war. This has had serious repercussions in our Paulita who has
developed a terrible fear of war and what might happen to us all. She starts crying when anyone
talks about battles or civil defense measures in school.
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