He stresses peace, Mary, and loyalty to Catholicism

Calling himself a pilgrim of faith and hope, love and peace, Pope John Paul II came to a Central America convulsed by violence, and to a divided church eroded by the growth of evangelical groups. The first Pope ever to visit this traditionally Catholic area of the world was greeted by fireworks, flags, and enthusiastic crowds throughout his eight-day, eight-nation tour, which included Belize and Haiti.

Security was tight throughout last month’s trip. It was reported that John Paul had been concerned enough about his safety to rewrite his will just before leaving, but there were no major incidents. Guerrillas in El Salvador and Guatemala declared a cease-fire, though some fighting continued.

The Pope stressed four major themes throughout the trip: (1) a call for peace based on justice, respect for the rights of all people, and love, especially toward the poor and downtrodden; (2) insistence on loyalty and adherence to the holy mother church, unity, and submission to the hierarchy and to himself as successor of Peter and vicar of Christ; (3) a warning against violence and against being used by extremist ideologies, and against political involvement by the clergy; and (4) an appeal for devotion to the Virgin Mary.

The thorniest country was undoubtedly Nicaragua. Its Catholics are badly split between the hierarchy led by Archbishop Obando y Bravo, which at first supported the revolution but since has parted ways, and the “popular church” made up of ardent Sandinistas, including many priests and nuns. (There are five priests in high government posts, contrary to direct papal orders, though they have temporarily given up their sacerdotal functions.)

Ever since the Pope’s visit was announced, it had been a political football. The hierarchy and government tussled over who would control the event, which the former wanted to turn into an anti-Sandinista demonstration. The Sandinistas finally won the power struggle by threatening not to let the pontiff come except on their terms. Church officials complained the government had censored all information about the forthcoming visit.

During the Pope’s 10-hour stay in the country, the Sandinistas tried to make as much political hay as possible. Comandante Daniel Ortega bitterly attacked the U.S. in his speech, while the backdrop for the papal mass in Managua was a large mural picturing the leaders of the revolution.

When the Pope, who had criticized Marxist education earlier, urged submission to the hierarchy and spoke against political involvement, leftist groups began chanting Sandinista slogans. They almost drowned out the pontiff, forcing him at one point to shout for silence. The Vatican later protested vigorously, claiming the Pope had been insulted and his microphones deliberately turned off so the majority of the crowd could not hear him. There were also claims the mass had been desecrated. Those who support the Sandinistas were bitter because the Pope did not praise their overthrow of the corrupt Somoza regime. They had reason for disappointment, since the revolution was energized by the social concern raised during the Second Vatican Council.

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Guatemala presented two special challenges to the Pope. One was the alleged repression by the government, including charges that thousands of innocent civilians have been killed in the fight against the guerrillas. This was exacerbated by the execution of six convicted terrorists on the eve of the pontiff’s arrival, despite papal appeals for clemency. A last-minute appeal to the supreme court had delayed the executions by 30 days, leading to the unfortunate coincidence in timing.

The second challenge was the large and growing evangelical church, estimated at 22 percent of the population and including the president, General Efraín Ríos Montt. The president, who has been campaigning for morality and responsibility in society and especially in government, welcomed the Pope as not only a fellow head of state but also as a messenger of good tidings.

In a mass at the large Campo Marte sports arena, the pontiff told a crowd estimated at 1 million that faith must be accompanied by works of love and justice, and that violation of rights—especially the right to life—torture, and kidnappings are a “very grave offense against God.” He also said, in words apparently aimed at the evangelicals, who celebrated their centennial on the same site last November with a crowd almost as large, that “faith must extend to the church. The church Christ builds upon the rock of Peter, of whom I am the humble successor … and which has received the power to forgive sins.”

Although the Pope did not specifically refer to evangelicals in Guatemala (he did criticize “aggressive proselytism” by Protestant “sects” during his short stop in Belize), local Catholic officials there kept up a barrage of attacks in the media prior to the visit, at least partially in response to some perhaps overly zealous local preachers. Evangelical leaders on the whole were silent.

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Any progress at wooing evangelicals back to the fold was probably undone by John Paul II’s devotion to, and emphasis on, the Virgin. Signs everywhere proclaimed his motto, totus tuus (wholly yours), addressed to Mary. The Pope dedicated an entire homily to the theme. Speaking at the Basilica of the Virgin of Suyapa, Honduras’s patron saint, just outside the capital city of Tegucigalpa, he said that the presence of Mary, our mother and model, is necessary in every church. In a closing prayer, he asked Mary to put Central America under her special protection.

The Pope’s charisma and the importance placed on his person were evident everywhere. Posters with pictures of the pontiff blossomed all over, with slogans such as “thou art Peter,” “where Peter is, there is Christ—where the Pope is, there is Christ,” and the famous totus tuus. Crowds chanted “John Paul II, everyone loves you,” and “John Paul, friend, Guatemala (Costa Rica, etc.) is with you.”

Says Emilio Antonio Nuñez of the Central American Theological Seminary in Guatemala City, “The image is of a preconciliar church. It is just like Vatican II and Medellín had never taken place.”

What lasting impact will Pope John Paul II’s visit make? He himself admitted, as he left Guatemala, that he brought no ready-made solution to the complex problems of the area. It is easier to speak of peace, justice, and love than to change men’s hearts. Even the most rabid anti-Catholic would have to agree with the words of President Rios Montt as the Pope departed: “If the love of Jesus Christ, our Lord, of which you have spoken, is practiced by every Guatemalan, Guatemala will be a wonderful example to the world.”


Aníbal Guzmán was installed as rector of the Latin American Biblical Seminary in San José, Costa Rica. Guzmán, a Bolivian Methodist, has studied at the University of Chile and Drew Methodist Seminary, and has been a pastor in five Central and South American nations. He was a member of the evaluation committee appointed by the seminary two years ago that recommended that the institution take a “radical evangelical” posture.

Edward Elliot has been named executive director of Evangelical Literature Overseas (ELO), succeeding Jim Johnson, who will continue in an advisory role. Elliot, now president of Domain Communications, has worked with Tyndale House Publishers and Living Bibles International, ELO helps missions and churches develop publishing houses, and bookstores.

Elton Dresselhaus, 50, area foreign secretary for the Latin America field of TEAM (The Evangelical Alliance Mission), responsible for the supervision of 200 missionaries in Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Netherlands Antilles, Peru, Trinidad, and Venezuela; March 4, in Winfield, Illinois, of a heart attack.

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