A Tale of Two Visits to Panama


Pope Francis’s recent visit to Panama caused me to reflect on the visit of another pope at another time.  On March 5, 1983, while I was still stationed in Panama and struggling through the events that led me to write Death in Panama, Pope John Paul II arrived in Panama to an enthusiastic crowd numbering in the tens of thousands.  Several of us staged a pope-watching party on the roof of my neighbor’s quarters, hoping to catch a glimpse of the charismatic pontiff as he delivered his major address to the people of Panama. 

What I remember most about that visit was that Pope John Paul II admonished the masses gathered on the tarmac of Albrook Air Force Station to reject the temptation to violence, which was then roiling Central America. 

“There are those who wish you to abandon your work and take up the arms of hate to struggle against your brothers.  You should not follow them. Where does this path of violence lead?  Without a doubt, it increases hatred and the distance between social groups.  These methods, completely contrary to the love of God and the teachings of your Church and of Jesus Christ, mock the reality of your noble aspirations and provoke new evils of social and moral decay.”

The pontiff had recently come from Nicaragua where he had scolded Father Ernesto Cardenal, who was then serving in the Sandinista government as the Culture Minister, telling him to “straighten out your position with the church.” 

Pope John Paul II was concerned about a growing trend in Latin America in general, and Nicaragua in particular, where Marxist revolutionaries had allied themselves with Catholics in support of what had come to be known as “liberation theology,” originally advanced by Father Gustavo Guitiérrez, a Peruvian priest.  Liberation theology is a melding of Christian theology and Marxist socio-economic analyses that focuses on concern for the poor and advocates political liberation of oppressed peoples as the solution.  Pope John Paul II clearly wanted to sever those ties, which he believed were a threat to the established order of the church.

How different the recent trip of Pope Francis to Panama.  Far from avoiding political entanglements, the pontiff waded into them, telling a crowd at a seaside park in Panama City, “This is the criteria to divide people: The builders of bridges and the builders of walls; those builders of walls sow fear and look to divide people.”  The remark was clearly aimed at President Trump’s proposal to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico.  And it wasn’t the first time the pope criticized a fundamental pledge of the Trump campaign.  In 2016 he said, “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.  This is not the gospel.”  For his part, the ever-pugnacious, then candidate Trump fired back, calling the pontiff’s comments “disgraceful” and saying “No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith.” 

The contrast between the two popes is obvious, although I suspect one’s view on the propriety of their respective behavior depends, in large part, on one’s political views. 

In the early 1980s the Catholic Church, under the leadership of Pope John Paul II, provided millions of dollars of financial support to Solidarity, the Polish labor union that was the catalyst for nationalist movements across Eastern Europe that fatally weakened the power of the central Soviet state.  Those who despise communism applaud the role the pontiff played in the demise of the evil empire, even though he involved the Catholic Church in what was clearly a political struggle, contradicting the advice he had delivered in Panama. 

In 2019, those who believe that the poor remain poor because they are oppressed by the societies in which they live support Pope Francis’s embrace of a progressive theology that emphasizes the church’s concern for the poor.  Recently, he went so far as to wish Father Guitiérrez, the father of liberation theology, a happy 90th birthday, writing “Thank you for your efforts and for your way of challenging everyone’s conscience, so that no one remains indifferent to the tragedy of poverty and exclusion.”

The world turned over many times between those two visits.  The Challenger exploded.  The Iron Curtain fell, and the Soviet Union disintegrated.  There have been wars and more wars.  Computers have connected us like never before, and yet feelings of isolation have reached epidemic proportions, leading to record levels of suicide.  Women have assumed roles in society that their mothers could never have imagined.  The percentage of babies born to unmarried women has soared.  And, the poor are still with us.  What does all this mean to the Catholic Church?

No doubt, being the leader of the largest and oldest Christian denomination has its challenges.  There will always be those who attempt to misrepresent what the pope says and does for their own purposes.  And, the church has its own problems, involving what some consider to be archaic doctrines on sexuality, as well as recurrent instances of failing to properly address sexual abuse cases involving the clergy.  But despite all of its troubles, few institutions throughout history have done as much good as has the Catholic Church.  Currently, it is the largest non-governmental provider of education and medical services in the world. 

As a member of the United Methodist Church, I don’t follow the current events of the Catholic Church or the pontiff.  Nevertheless, I wish both the institution and its leader well.  Prompted to consider these two popes, because of their visits to Panama, I’m reminded of the importance of grounding one’s beliefs in basic principles.  For example, as I explained in another blog post, I’m an American because I believe in the fundamental importance and power of freedom, even though I might disagree with another American’s view of the limits that should be placed on it.  As a Christian, I try follow the Great Commandment:  to love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love my neighbor as myself.  So, if I disagree with what a pope might say or do, I hope I’m able to distinguish whether something is fundamentally wrong or whether I’m really just disagreeing with one man’s view of how to follow the Great Commandment.