The last time Pope John Paul II visited Central America, the region was a Cold War battleground, Roman Catholic priests were militant activists and hecklers disrupted him during a Mass.
Returning nearly 13 years later, John Paul is hoping to strengthen fragile peace agreements, boost the poor at a time of tight international aid and remind the region of its Catholic traditions.
The region “now has a chance” to put conflict behind it, said papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro. “But that chance is not yet a reality,” and the pope wants to encourage the forces for peace and democracy.
John Paul’s 69th foreign trip, starting Monday, will take him to Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Venezuela before he returns to Rome Feb. 12.
In 1983, civil wars were being fought in Guatemala and El Salvador and the U.S.-backed Contra rebels were seeking to overthrow the leftist Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The situation changed as the superpower rivalry faded.
Only in Guatemala does fighting continue, although recent outbursts of violence in Nicaragua, including a series of church bombings, have led authorities to mobilize thousands of police officers for the papal visit.
This is the pope’s first foreign trip since he was forced to skip Christmas Day Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica and to interrupt his holiday greetings on television, alarming a worldwide audience aware of a series of recent ailments that have slowed down the once-vigorous pope.
Vatican officials pronounced the 75-year-old pontiff in fine condition on the eve of the trip, attributing his Christmas problems to influenza and food poisoning. He also no longer uses a cane, which he had relied upon after he broke his right leg in a fall in April 1994.
It was during the stop in Managua, Nicaragua, in March 1983 that Sandinista hecklers disrupted the pope’s Mass, a rare public demonstration during a religious ceremony conducted by the pope that led the Vatican to rally Catholics worldwide in his defense. The presence of several Roman Catholic priests in the leftist government also angered the pontiff.
When the Sandinistas lost power in a 1990 election, he agreed to return.
Despite violence and a rash of bombings “we’re not scared or discouraged and we are preparing to receive the pope with great enthusiasm,” Nicaragua’s cardinal, Miguel Obando Bravo, told Vatican Radio.