MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass on Wednesday for hundreds of thousands of faithful at an open-air lakeside amphitheater here, hours after the 19th bombing of a Roman Catholic Church in Nicaragua in 10 months.
Refraining from comment on the bombings, the 75-year-old pontiff favorably compared this visit--the second stop on a four-country tour--to his 1983 experience here. That time, chanting Sandinistas drowned out his words.
"Thirteen years ago, it seemed as if Nicaragua and Central America were nothing more than a battlefield for the superpowers," he said to resounding applause. "But today one can see that you are sovereign. . . . I remember the celebration of 13 years ago. It was a scandal on a dark night. Today, the same Holy Communion has been celebrated in sunlight [with] divine providence working its design on the history of nations."
This time, Daniel Ortega, who was president in 1983 and is now a candidate for president in this year's election, took out full-page newspaper and television ads to welcome the pope--his only opportunity to do so because he was not invited to any of Wednesday's private events.
"We all regret the bad taste the [1983 trip] left," Ortega said.
That taste lingered in the dynamite explosion that slightly damaged a church in Masaya, near the capital, on Tuesday night.
Previous church bombings have been traced to a small group led by prominent Sandinistas--members of the left-wing political party that governed Nicaragua for a decade after overthrowing the Somoza family dictatorship. A dozen people, including three Sandinistas, were convicted last month of the previous bombings.
The bombings, combined with Ortega's message, indicate the continuing ambivalence with which the Nicaraguan political left regards the Catholic Church.
Much of that ambivalence is a reflection of Sandinista confrontations over the past two decades with a man the pope singled out Wednesday for praise: Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, archbishop of Managua and arguably the most prominent churchman in Central America.
As the Catholic hierarchy has lost clout in other parts of Latin America, Obando y Bravo has markedly increased the church's influence on the government here after the Sandinistas left power in 1990.
Since then, the government of President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro has relied heavily on the cardinal for advice and as an arbiter in disputes ranging from a recent deadlock with the Congress to labor negotiations with lottery-ticket vendors.
Obando y Bravo looks less like a power broker than a simple parish priest or the son of a rural surveyor, which he is.
Stocky and dark, the cardinal, who turned 70 last week, has a man-of-the-people appearance that endears him to his flock, observers say. During an interview in his spartan office, he speaks quickly, sentences tumbling into each other.
In contrast, when he celebrates weekly Mass at the modernistic Managua cathedral, Obando y Bravo's words are slow, distinct and measured, ensuring that everyone understands the message echoing off the concrete walls.
Shortly before John Paul's arrival, the cardinal warned his congregation that the pope will not be manipulated, an apparent reference to the 1983 visit, when the pontiff was flanked by Sandinista leaders and placed before a backdrop of the Sandinista movement's heroes.
That incident, humiliating to Catholics, ironically raised Obando y Bravo's status.
"He tried to warn [the Vatican], but the nuncio [the Vatican's representative] took the word of the Sandinistas, which was not to be trusted," said Father Bismarck Carballo, the cardinal's spokesman and one of his closest advisors.
John Paul said Wednesday that he had returned to Nicaragua at the insistence of Obando y Bravo and Chamorro.
The alliance between the cardinal and the president has returned the Catholic Church to a level of influence over Nicaraguan life that, even in Latin America, is striking at the end of the 20th century.
"For 20 years, he has been an important factor in Nicaragua, and he has always been up to the challenge," said Adolfo Calero, a leader of the Contra guerrillas who fought the Sandinistas.
The cardinal's successes and amicable relationship with the current government grate on the growing Protestant churches and politicians who are out of power.
Among those most angry is Ernesto Cardenal, one of two former priests who served as Cabinet ministers during the Sandinista regime.
"He influences the extreme right, but that is not the entire nation," Cardenal said.
Obando y Bravo denies any interest in partisan politics.
"That is the field of laymen," he said. "But I do get involved in politics in the broad sense, for the common good. I believe we have the responsibility to orient our people, through sermons and pastoral letters, to move toward a democracy that will benefit the majority of the Nicaraguan people."
But it is Obando y Bravo's political influence that is widely seen as the target of those who are carrying out the bombing campaign against the Catholic churches here.
That violence, so early in the electoral season, worries Obando y Bravo.
"The upcoming elections are going to be difficult," he predicted. "We have to do what we can as citizens so that they are calm."