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It is easy for us to condemn those who live under tyranny

What would we have done in Argentina?

By on Friday, 22 March 2013

Fr Bergoglio as a young priest in Argentina (CNS)

Fr Bergoglio as a young priest in Argentina (CNS)

My brother has stereotyped me as someone who only reads the Daily Telegraph, never the Guardian. Well, he’s wrong. On Wednesday I was sitting in a cafe with my mother (she in whose company I am not allowed to mention the vulgar word “blog”) and there were free copies of that day’s Guardian lying about. Naturally I picked one up. First I noticed the cartoon: a large caricature of Pope Francis. That’s acceptable; he is a public figure and cartoons can be gently humorous – look at the wonderful cartoons of Matt of the Telegraph, which is partly the reason I read it in the first place. (He did a very funny one during the papal conclave of a man staring at puffs of white smoke coming out of his car’s exhaust pipe.) But to return to the Guardian cartoon: there was the Pope – with “junta-style” military headwear perched on top of his white skull cap. Nasty.

But then in the same issue I got a pleasant surprise: a balanced article entitled “Pope Francis: the hidden history” with the subtitle, “The pontiff has been lambasted over his failure in 1976 to speak out against the military junta in Argentina. But some argue his covert actions saved many lives.” Written by Uki Goni, the article is fair-minded and sensible. Referring to the military dictatorship which took power in early 1976, he comments: “That the Provincial Superior of the Society of Jesus in Argentina, Jorge Bergoglio, was not among those who put themselves publicly at the forefront [in confronting the military] has left his role during that period open to interpretation now that he has become Pope Francis.”

Quoting the 1980 Nobel peace prize-winner, Adolfo Perez Esquivel that “There is no link relating him [Bergoglio] to the dictatorship”, Goni makes it clear that witnesses are now coming forward “to paint a formerly unseen picture of Bergoglio moving secretly behind the scenes to rescue a number of priests whose lives were in danger from the military death squads that began roaming Argentina.” One of these witnesses, Fr Miguel La Civita, states that Bergoglio was secretly active “helping people who were persecuted by the military”, hiding them at the school he headed in Buenos Aires. Robert Cox, former editor of the English-language daily Buenos Aires Herald at the time of the dictatorship, says that “Bergoglio didn’t speak out” but adds that those who are now critical of the Holy Father’s behaviour “don’t understand the complexity of Bergoglio’s position back then when things were so dangerous. They can’t see how difficult it was to operate under those conditions.”

It is very easy from the comfort of one’s armchair to condemn a person from a far country you know little about for not “speaking out” while living under a repressive regime, when to do so might put the lives of others at risk. Bergoglio was running a Jesuit school at the time; he must have been acutely conscious of his duty of care for the pupils for whom he was responsible. That he also hid in the school people who were on the hit list of the junta was itself an extremely risky thing to do; what if they had been found out?

This all too likely possibility reminds me of that powerful, semi-autobiographical film, Au Revoir Les Enfants made by Louis Malle in 1987. It was January 1944, northern France was occupied by the Germans and Malle was a 12-year-old boy at a Jesuit boarding school in Fontainebleau. The headmaster, Pere Jean (Pere Jaques in real life), who is portrayed as a brave and dedicated priest, if rather austere, hid three Jewish boys at the school. They were discovered in a raid by the Gestapo and taken to Auschwitz. The headmaster himself was arrested at the same time and taken to Mauthausen concentration camp where he died the following year.

Sometimes there is as much bravery and virtue in enduring and suffering behind the scenes as there is in confrontation: a white martyrdom, as it is called. Who knows what Pope Francis had to endure during those violent years, what hidden acts of self-sacrifice he made, what dangers he courted?
I have been inclined to dismiss the Guardian as a stereotypical Left-wing secular tract; I think I’ll revise my opinion.