Pope Decries Banishment of His Bishop : Sees Nicaragua’s Order as an Attack on Entire Church

Times Staff Writer

Pope John Paul II sternly rebuked the leftist Sandinista government of Nicaragua on Saturday for evoking “dark ages” in church-state relations by expelling a Roman Catholic bishop.

In an unusual public statement that he made in Spanish at the end of a Mass for more than a million worshipers in Medellin, the pontiff called Friday’s deportation of Bishop Pablo Antonio Vega “a nearly incredible act.”

John Paul said he was deeply saddened by the Nicaraguan government’s action, in which he said the bishop was “taken by force from his prelature and expelled from his own country.”


Nicaragua’s Position

A spokesman for Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega was quoted here as having said that the bishop, who is vice president of the Nicaraguan Bishops Conference, “does not deserve to be a Nicaraguan” because he supports the U.S.-backed, anti-Sandinista rebels, known as contras .

A senior Vatican official went to special lengths to emphasize to reporters traveling with the Pope on his weeklong visit to Colombia how strongly John Paul feels about the Nicaraguan action.

Vega’s expulsion followed by only six days Nicaragua’s refusal to allow Father Bismarck Carballo, chief spokesman for the church in Nicaragua, to re-enter the country after a trip to Europe.

The senior Vatican official said the pontiff views the Nicaraguan actions as “intolerable” and “as an attack on the entire church.”

“The Holy Father is indignant and very worried,” he added.

In the United States, the head of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops said the two banishments reflect “a new and dangerously repressive policy” toward the church.

U.S. Bishop’s Condemnation

Bishop James W. Malone of Youngstown, Ohio, sent cables to Ortega and Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, archbishop of Managua and primate of Nicaragua, condemning the actions.

In Italy, the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano said Vega’s expulsion “represents one of the gravest acts of persecution that can take place in the life of the church.”

In its Sunday edition, made available Saturday, the newspaper said: “The action seriously violates religious liberty because it prevents a bishop from carrying out his ministry and denies Catholics their pastor.”

In his statement at the Mass in Medellin, John Paul said, “This nearly incredible act has deeply saddened me, all the more so because it evokes dark ages--still not very long ago, but that one could reasonably have believed to have been overcome--in the action brought against the church.”

His use of the term dark age s was meant to refer to the anti-clericalism and persecution that the church suffered during the past century in Latin America following such events as the Mexican Revolution, according to the senior Vatican official.

Hopes for Reversal

“I would very much like to hope that those responsible for this decision reconsider the seriousness of such an act, which also contradicts repeated claims of wanting a peaceful and respectful coexistence with the church,” the pontiff said.

The Vatican official said John Paul deliberately chose to use the words peaceful and respectful coexistence because they are almost exactly the same words employed three weeks ago by Nicaraguan Vice President Sergio Ramirez when he visited the Pope and the Vatican secretary of state in Rome, offering assurances of better relations.

John Paul said he felt “profoundly disturbed in my spirit,” adding that the expulsion “disturbed all the children of the church and, even further, it also disturbs all people sensitive to the needs of freedom and the respect owed to the fundamental rights of man and the citizen.”

Ties Had Been Improving

Before the barring of Carballo and the expulsion of Vega, Vatican diplomats had reported improving relations with the revolutionary Marxist government of Nicaragua, following a bitter low point reached when the Pope visited Managua in 1983 and was publicly insulted by Sandinista leaders.

The Pope’s impassioned rebuke of the Sandinistas on Saturday came coincidentally at the point in his Colombian journey when, by longstanding plan, he addressed the question of the church’s relationship to leftist social and political action in Latin America.

It was in Medellin in 1968 that Pope Paul VI approved a document of the Second General Conference of Latin American Bishops that spelled out the church’s now-famous “preferential option for the poor.” The document paved the way for church activists, many of them using the new language of liberation theology, to break with the traditional status quo and confront oppressive military regimes.

Clergy Backed Revolt

Ironically, one of those regimes was that of strongman Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, and the Sandinista revolution that toppled Somoza in 1979 was helped immensely by supporters in the clergy.

Four Roman Catholic priests still hold important posts in the Sandinista government, although they serve contrary to the wishes of the Pope and the Vatican and have been suspended from performance of their priestly functions.

In a Saturday evening speech to the poor of Medellin, John Paul evoked the “spirit of Medellin” by reaffirming his commitment to “the tired and oppressed.”

‘Call For Social Justice’

“I want to launch a new call for social justice,” the Pope proclaimed, “a call to the developed nations, so that overcoming the forms of an economy oriented almost exclusively towards maximizing profit for its own benefit, they search jointly with the developing nations for real and effective solutions to the grave problems that are assuming every day ever more worrying proportions and whose victims are almost always the weakest.”

But at the same time, the Pope reminded priests and nuns who work with the poor that their primary responsibility is “of a religious and spiritual character.”