Pope John Paul II came to Central America and Haiti, he said, "in the midst of conflict, to the vicious circle of death, to the drama of violence that already has made so much innocent blood run." He called on "everyone" here to be "peacemakers."
But as the decorations are taken down in the region's capitals, initial assessments of the eight-day pilgrimage indicate that it may ultimately result in a deepening of some of the most bitter divisions in the region.
In condemning any priestly act that might lead to violence, the pope obviously wanted to pull his priests out of any activity that might ally them with revolutionary movements. But it is doubtful, according to many political analysts in the region, that he changed the commitments of any priests involved in what they see as a struggle to change oligarchic societies--or the many more whose work for what they see as the rights of the poor has placed them in indirect alliance with the left.
On the other side of the political spectrum, rebels fighting to overthrow the Marxist-dominated regime in Nicaragua have taken the heckling of the pope by Sandinistas during his mass in Managua on March 4 as a symbol with which they hope to convert their cause into something like a holy war.
"Not one year's work on our part will do what the Sandinistas did themselves by treating the pope with such vulgarity," said anti-Sandinista leader Alfonso Calero in an interview here.
John Paul's plea for dialogue in El Salvador, while condemning all violence, was laden with attacks on the strategies of the leftist opposition, warning against "the deliberate and tactical lie" and ideologies that make dialogue "difficult and sterile."
As a result, much of the pressure he might have applied on the reluctant government to begin talks appeared to be vitiated. With elections scheduled for December in El Salvador, Defense Minister Jose Guillermo Garcia again ruled out any sort of negotiations with the left yesterday.
Here in Guatemala, as a follow-up to the execution of six prisoners just prior to the pope's visit--and despite his pleas for clemency--Defense Minister Oscar Mejia Victores has explained why 10 more people tried by secret court shortly will be shot by firing squads.
Gen. Mejia Victores is quoted in this morning's papers as saying, "It's impossible to grant a reprieve . Prayers and pardons cannot protect a people being lashed by bands of criminals who don't give clemency or prayers to their victims."
Many of John Paul's homilies and addresses, summed up in his talk at the Latin American Bishops' Conference in Haiti before returning to Rome Wednesday, seemed directed at getting the Catholic Church out of any association with violent revolution in Latin America. Priests have often supplied the organizational knowledge and moral authority to build, at the community level, organizations that have subsequently backed guerrillas.
Although the pope firmly denounced the political, social and economic injustices that exist in such countries as Guatemala and Haiti, and renewed the commitment of the Catholic Church to work for change, he insisted this be done without resorting to secular ideologies or to arms.
"Recent history frequently shows that, be it for a badly oriented idealism, or ideological pressure, or the interest of a party or system within the play of the hegemonies, many young people give in to the temptation to fight injustice with violence. And thus, by wanting to repress that with other violence, the process is unleashed that pains and disturbs us," the pope said in Haiti.
Leftist priests in Nicaragua and elsewhere often say that the pope does not understand Latin society. A western political analyst in Managua who is normally critical of the Sandinistas seemed to agree, saying, "The commitment of the Christian in the revolution is not diminished. The pope didn't bring anybody back who wasn't there already. He seemed out of step with the Latin American church in general. People are not going to be persuaded."
It was the Sandinistas' reaction to the pope, however, more than anything he said or did, that could provoke the most serious strains. The spectacle of the pontiff being shouted down by Sandinista partisans and militiamen, led at one point by the party's top officials in the stands near the altar, shocked many devout Nicaraguans and others in this predominantly Catholic region.
During his El Salvador stop, the pope called for dialogue, rather than continued violence, to resolve the conflicts there. But the government, having just scheduled elections, did not seem moved by the pope's pleas. Defense Minister Garcia said yesterday that dialogue with the rebels would be "going behind the backs" of the voters.
Senior church officials in El Salvador now say that the left must show some major sign that it is willing to accept peaceful methods if the government is to be budged toward the negotiating table.
Some normally well-informed Guatemalan officials say the decision to execute the six convicted "subversives" days before the pope arrived was a result of fears that a face-to-face appeal from the pontiff could not be refused and the belief that President Efrain Rios Montt had to permit the firing squad to go into action or look weak in the eyes of some of his hawkish commanders.
But Rios Montt, who had earlier seemed to be riding on the crest of major conversions of fundamentalist Protestantism, suddenly found himself isolated by the killings. "There is the sense," said a Christian Democratic politician, "that a good Catholic boy would not have done such a thing."