Pope John Paul in Managua, 1983

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.

(After Nicaragua, the pope went on to Panama, Costa Rica, El Salvador and then Guatemala, where he also had an eventual trip. See here.)

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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