Maybe his dedication to the poor is at least in part a perpetual penance for a lapse of courage during Argentina’s dirty war decades ago.
Maybe he already caught himself long before the media played gotcha.
The pope named Francis may indeed still be reluctant to admit forthrightly in all its particulars the church in Argentina’s failure to stand up to the powers of oppression.
But back in 2000, when he was Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Ares, he did say the entire Argentinean church should clad itself in public penance for the sins of the dirty war in the 1970s and early 1980s.
And when he does use mere words rather than actions to put forth the Gospel, he talks very much in the way of the two slum-dwelling priests whom he has been accused of failing to protect when he was their immediate superior.
“Let’s not tolerate the sad spectacle of those who no longer know how to lie and contradict themselves to hold onto their privileges, their rapaciousness, and their ill-earned wealth,” he said of the unconscionable rich after becoming Cardinal Bergoglio.
He had been ordained in 1969, four days before his 33rd birthday, and had been Father Bergoglio for only four years when he was named the provincial superior of Jesuits in Argentina. His first great test of leadership came when the military junta targeted two of his priests who had begun living and working in the slums, Father Orlando Yorio and Father Franz Jalics. Franz happens to be the German equivalent of Francis.
Jalics recalled in a statement he issued last week, “In 1974, moved by the inner desire to live the Gospel and enhance visibility of the abject poverty...I moved to a favela, a slum of the city, together with a fellow brother.”
Jalics continued: “About 30,000 people, leftist guerrillas as well as innocent civilians, were killed within one or two years by the military junta in the civil-war-like situation of the time. The two of us in the slum had no contact with the junta or the guerrillas. Due to the lack of information and targeted misinformation at that point in time, our position was open to misinterpretation within the church. At this time, we lost connection to one of our lay partners when the person joined the guerrillas. When he was captured and interrogated by junta soldiers nine months later, they learned that he had been in contact with us.”
Bergoglio had initially endorsed Yorio and Jalics’s work among the poor, but he reportedly ordered them to cease at the military’s urging. Yorio and Jalics refused, with the bravery of true priests. They either asked to leave the Jesuit order or Bergoglio expelled them or both. Whatever the exact particulars, the military felt free to do as it wished.
“We were then arrested in the assumption that we were also associated with the guerrillas,” Jalics recalled in the statement. “After a five-day interrogation, the officer who was in charge of the questioning released us with the words: ‘Padres, you were not guilty. I will see to it that you can return to the slum.’ Contrary to this statement and inexplicably to us, we were detained blindfolded and shackled for five months after that.”
Jalics and Yorio would suggest after their release that Bergoglio had been complicit in their arrest. Bergoglio would insist that he worked quietly behind the scenes to free them. One government document seems to suggest that Bergoglio recommended Jalics not be issued a passport when he sought to leave the country after being freed. Jalics nonetheless managed to depart for the United States and then Germany.
Bergoglio himself traveled to Germany to further his studies after his six-year term as provincial superior expired. He there became enraptured with a painting called “Mary Untier of Knots,” which depicted the Blessed Mother symbolically undoing such relatively small problems of life as marital discord. He returned with a copy of the painting and for a time made divorce one of his prime social concerns. He also was active in the anti-abortion rights movement.
There remained the question of whether the church had gone along with the military in the retroactive abortion of so many civilians. He avoided directly addressing the question of how a church that purports to hold all life sacred could have acquiesced to wholesale murder, but he seems to have wrestled with personal regret over not having taken a more forthright stand against undeniable evil. He now came to recognize that he had to address much bigger social problems than Mary’s knots. He became an increasingly outspoken advocate for the poor.
On becoming an archbishop, he eschewed the palace in favor of a modest apartment and sought to live the Gospel much as the two tortured priests had lived it. Jalics and Yorio came to see him after more than two decades and following a private talk were able to able to summon enough forgiveness to share an altar with him.
“We celebrated mass publicly together and hugged solemnly,” Jalics would recall.
Jalics would add, “I am reconciled and on my part, consider the matter to be closed. I wish Pope Francis God’s rich blessings for his office.”
As for the specifics of the past, Jalics would only say, “I’m unable to comment on the role of [Father] Bergoglio in this matter.”
Whether he had once betrayed them or simply failed to protect them, the man who would become Pope Francis had been absolved by a couple of slum priests. The future pope could no doubt count on the same from the Almighty. He now had only to secure forgiveness from himself.
And just maybe that is part of the reason why Pope Francis is now staying so true to the Gospel that the two priests lived when they went into the slums all those years ago. He has insisted on living as simply and humbly as a pope can. He told the faithful of Argentina who wished to witness his official installment as pope in person instead to spend the money on the poor, an act the junta would no doubt have deemed subversive.
“Always preach the Gospel,” St. Francis of Assisi, from whom the new pope adopted his name, had once said. “Use words if you have to.”