Pope Francis’ genuine humility could be his greatest strength
Is it ridiculously optimistic to imagine that the new pope might make a difference – not in spite of his murky past but because of it?
A few years ago, I was in Buenos Aires. Passing a church called San Patricio (St Patrick’s) in the nice middle-class Belgrano district, I dropped in out of mere parochial Irish curiosity. What I saw next to the altar, though, was a haunting shrine that had only a little to do with the history of the Irish in Argentina.
It was made up of photographs of five men against the backdrop of a bloodstained red carpet. They were three Pallotine priests – Pedro Dufau, Alfredo Leaden and Alfredo Kelly – and two seminarians, Salvador Barbeito and Emilio Barletti. The carpet was the one on which they had been made to kneel before they were executed in the early morning of July 4th, 1976.
Kelly (who, with Leaden, was a member of the Irish Argentine community) had spoken in his sermons about the “disappeared” victims of the vicious military junta. He had received death threats accusing him of being a communist. He and the others were murdered as part of a killing spree by the military in response to the bombing of a police headquarters.
I asked people from the Irish-Argentine community about the shrine. It was clear that the memory was still as raw as that of Bloody Sunday was in Derry. The five victims were just a few drops in a great wave of bloodshed.
The junta’s orgy of sadistic depravity, in which tens of thousands were murdered, victims (including children) routinely raped and tortured and infants kidnapped from their mothers, left a fearsome legacy of trauma. Even so, the murders of the Pallotines were remembered with particular anger by faithful Catholics.
Priests and nuns have been martyred through the ages. Very rarely have the killers had the blessing of the church itself. The Argentine hierarchy knew of the military coup in advance and gave its blessing to the junta’s claim to be acting in defence of “Western and Christian civilisation”.
In contrast to its stance in similar situations in Chile and Brazil, the hierarchy refused to give shelter to human rights groups and limited itself to extremely mild criticism, even of the murders of clergy.
In the case of the massacre of the Pallotines, the hierarchy issued a statement that did not name the incident directly but expressed concern about “what kind of forces are so powerful that they can act at their own discretion in our society with total impunity and anonymity”. It then reassured the junta members of its support: “We have made this statement sure of Your Excellencies’ understanding, knowing your high ideals and your generous attitude towards the fatherland, its institutions and its citizens.”
What the new pope did in those years is hotly disputed. What is not in dispute, however, is what he did not do. As head of the Jesuit order in Argentina, he could have spoken out, even cautiously, against the sheer sinfulness of murder, rape, torture and kidnapping. He did not. In contrast to his subsequent willingness to denounce democratically elected Argentine governments, he held his silence.
To say that it would have been impossible to speak is to dishonour the memory of the thousands of nuns and priests who showed exemplary moral courage throughout the period when criminal military juntas ruled most of Latin America. The pope says he worked behind the scenes to protect victims of the regime. Many other Catholic clergy understood their calling to include an obligation to work in front of the scenes.
But maybe – just maybe – the pope’s failure of a great moral test might be his strength. Could it be that the personal humility that he radiates derives from the awareness that he has a great deal to be humble about?
We’ve had popes who came into office armed with an impregnable sense of their own righteousness and we know where that has led them – into a rigidity of mind and spirit. Perhaps a sense of his own lack of righteousness might make of Pope Francis a leader who could, with sincerity, sign his name in the style once favoured by members of the hierarchy: peccator episcopus , sinner and bishop.
Perhaps, too, Francis really means it when he talks of the church as, above all, a voice for the poor. That, of course, was the faith professed by the nuns and priests who were martyred by military juntas in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s.
The “dirty war” in Argentina was in part an internal battle for the soul of Catholicism, between those who chose the radical “option for the poor” and those who preferred to opt for the rich and powerful. The second group emerged triumphant and it has been in the ascendant ever since.
Francis is not going to change the church’s doctrine or structures, but he could make it really matter in the world if he pays what he owes to the memory of those who saw poverty and oppression as the biggest sins.