A pastor in a time of brutality

When you are the head of an institution that is as old and as influential as the Catholic Church, your life is bound to be minutely scrutinized to determine how well it measures up to the vision and ideals of the institution. Benedict’s record as a young man was dug up to see if he was ever an ardent Hitler supporter. He was not.

Now, it is Pope Francis’ turn to reckon with the past. Did he, like many in the Argentine clergy, expressly or tacitly support the brutal military dictatorship that murdered about 9,000 and “disappeared” thousands of others in the dark period between 1976 and 1983?  The quick answer is no.

But, did he, when he was Fr. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, head of the Argentine Jesuits, vigorously speak out against the dictatorship? Apparently, he also did not. Argentina’s bishops were themselves divided, with the majority signaling their sympathy for the regime. The future pope was neither on the left nor on the right. He simply refused to be drawn into the partisan strife that was ripping apart his country and people.

Did he do anything to save and help the victims of the regime? Here, the record is somewhat more ambivalent. There is nothing to suggest that the young Jesuit provincial superior (he was then just in his 30s) was sympathetic to the junta or that he condoned its actions. But, certain doubts about the way he conducted himself during that period have persisted, partly because he himself had been reticent to speak about those years just to satisfy his critics.

In particular, the grim events surrounding the abduction of two brother Jesuits—Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics—have come back to haunt the new Pope. The two priests were active in the organization of slum dwellers. As the head of the Argentine Jesuits, Bergoglio instructed them to discontinue their work in the slums because it had become too risky. The army had begun explicitly targeting the activist leaders who had burrowed into the slums. Yorio and Jalics defied their superior’s order by staying put instead of abandoning the urban poor community to which they had brought the comforting presence of the Church. Their decision was understandable and praiseworthy, given the circumstances. But it put their superior, who was responsible for them, in a difficult situation. Bergoglio felt he had no choice but to dismiss them from the Jesuit order.

When the military confronted Bergoglio with its findings of the two Jesuits’ activities in the slum, asking him pointblank if he supported their subversive work, the future pope had to say no. Many saw this failure to endorse the legitimacy of his brothers’ work as akin to feeding them to the dogs. Indeed, not long after, on May 23, 1976, Yorio and Jalics were abducted and brought to the infamous Navy Mechanics School where they were heavily tortured. But, unlike other detainees who died in military custody, the two priests were subsequently found in a dump, blindfolded, half-naked and dazed, bearing the mental and physical trauma inflicted on them by their military captors.

According to his biographer, Sergio Rubin, Father Bergoglio had found a way to speak to the dictator Jorge Videla, and, later, to one of the powerful leaders of the junta, Admiral Emilio Massera, to plead for the lives of Yorio and Jalics. That is how their lives were spared. Years later, the Society of Jesus offered to reinstate both priests. Jalics accepted the offer but Yorio refused to return to the Jesuit fold. In 2012, Cardinal Bergoglio led the Argentine Church in the issuance of a collective statement expressing deep regret for the mistakes of the Church and for not doing enough to protect the flock from the atrocities of the military dictatorship.

The scale of the outrage must have been such that these acts of restitution have failed to appease those who demand a full accounting of the complicity of institutions in the “dirty war.” In an interview conducted in 2010 by Argentine investigative journalist Horacio Verbitsky, Yorio’s brother, Rodolfo, spoke about Cardinal Bergoglio: “I know people he helped. That’s exactly what reveals his two faces, and his closeness to the military powers. He was a master at ambiguity.”

But many have spoken on behalf of the new Pope, the most prominent being the 1980 Nobel Peace laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who was awarded the Nobel for his comprehensive documentation of the military barbarism of that period. In a radio interview he gave following the Argentine cardinal’s election to the papacy, Perez Esquivel spoke frankly:  “Perhaps, he didn’t have the courage of other priests, but he never collaborated with the dictatorship. Bergoglio was no accomplice of the dictatorship. He can’t be accused of that.”

All this is only too familiar to us in the Philippines, where, in the darkest years of martial law, the Church hierarchy swung from “critical collaboration” to outright repudiation of the Marcos regime. This ambivalence appears to be built into the structure of premodern society, where the spheres of politics and religion shade into one another. In normal times, the Church is largely unaware of this. It is only in moments of great social stress, when it finds itself called upon to speak out against injustice, that the Church realizes how religious faith can lead to a theology of liberation.

One can imagine how the young Jorge Mario Bergoglio, seeing how his brothers in the Argentine clergy had become entangled in the secular struggles of their time, tried desperately to recover from the roots of the faith the authentic voice of the Church.

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