21Mar 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.


10 Responses

  1. Darlene Starrs

    Pope Francis is going to be conducting Holy Thursday service at a youth prison in Rome! He’s apparently going to wash the feet of the inmates! Humble, yes, yes, he is!
    You know, I would bet my last dime, that he’s the kind of Pope, that will get up one morning and say: “I’m going to Ireland”.
    I have seen that list of signatures for the resolution, but seriously, has anyone from the ACP, tried to contact the Pope directly? Has anyone thought to invite him to Ireland…..bypassing the nuncio?

  2. Pádraig McCarthy

    I think Fintan O’Toole, and others, are drawing conclusions without sufficient evidence of what Francis did, and why, under the junta. Much is made of what Horacio Verbitsky, an Argentinian journalist and supporter of the present government, has alleged.
    On the other side, there’s the statement of Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, an Argentine pacifist, art painter and sculptor. He was the recipient of the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize. He says that Bergoglio had no links with the dictatorship. I have not seen this reported here yet. See http://www.buenosairesherald.com/article/126367/ and
    It is always difficult to judge whether a person acted in the “best” way under such a dictatorship: take a public profile, or work quietly and unseen? Surely both options have value?
    The danger is that the hurler on the ditch will claim the right to judge such situations, and this many years later, than the person in the thick of the dilemma. Did the churches do enough during the 30 years of conflict in the North? Did Jesus take a sufficiently strong stand against Roman rule, as well as highlighting the failures of religious leaders?

    Esquivel is an Argentinean architect, author and the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize recipient. He vehemently protested against the social injustice caused by the Argentinean military regime in the 1970’s and was jailed on numerous occasions. He is the leader of Servicio Paz y Justicia, an organisation that promotes human rights throughout Latin America. He is on the Leadership Council of Front Line Defenders, based in Dublin, who defend human rights activists around the world. In Argentina he founded the Ecumenical Movement for Human Rights, which assisted families of the people who “disappeared”, and he created the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights, which monitored government policy. When he sought to renew his passport in April 1977, the Argentine authorities imprisoned him for over a year without any charge and tortured him with cattle prods, electric shocks, and ice cold showers.

    It seems to me that his assessment should receive at least as much attention as that of Horacio Verbitsky, who supports the Kirchner government.

  3. Padair

    I always had some level of resentment in having to pray for the hierarchy before the laity at Mass. Pope, bishops, priests etc.

    Oh yes, and you sheeple out there in the pews.

    I don’t remember having a particular, any real desire to pray for any Pope and I believe he’s the sixth now in this life time.

    Some of that was just being away from it all and not caring one way or the other. Then a lack of trust – of faith, that they were not really and only about power and pallaver – gowns and bling.

    The minute this man stepped out on the balcony he seemed some way different. I know we can’t go on ‘feeling’ – ‘intuition’ – but there was/is a good intuition. Had a good feeling in me puddins.

    And then he asked that the people pray for and with him. There is something paternal about him in a real way I also feel. And the rest since.

    Sure – it’s too early to know anything really. But he is just a man – a human being, who has no more capacity to be all things to all than any of the rest of us.

    I like him – so far certainly, and have a renewed sense of faith and hope – and pray sincerely for him that he be guided and help guide the rest of us. I don’t mind anymore, being one of the sheeple in the pew, bleating to the lead Shepherd to care for us all – Pope, cardinals, bishops, the front line priests and all others.

    That we all become the People of God – Church, asking, intending –

    “Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven……. ”

    I like this man. But admit feelings are not always reliable indicators.

    But still there is faith, and hope that God’s love is and will continue to be realised in and through all of us – as human beings.

    Just like this man, another human being who stepped out on that balcony and asked we all pray. Just like Jesus –

    “Pray always.” 🙂 Then hope, and don’t worry. If only were that easy. Maybe it is. 😉

  4. patrogers

    Reading Fintan O’Toole’s piece made me wonder: are there no lengths to which he will not go, just to rain on other people’s hopes — which he clearly feels are illusory. How wonderful it would be if he put that bright intelligence to better use, in seeing the good that’s around us and building on it. In my view he let himself down in this downbeat piece! Perhaps he needs to do more research before letting rip.

  5. Rory Connor

    Fintan O’Toole naturally accepts the word of former Montoneros terrorist Horacio Verbitsky to that of a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize where Pope Francis is concerned. The following is from the Wikipedia article on Senor Verbitsky’s former colleagues.
    As other similar left-wing guerrillas that operated in Latin America during the 1970s [the Montoneros] maintained that democracies were actually a complex masquerade that concealed fascist governments and delayed class struggle.[4] Their attacks sought to force the governments to give up such masquerades and openly operate as fascist governments; expecting that in such scenario the people would support the guerrillas.[5] This doctrine did not work as intended: the people despised the military dictatorships, but did not see the guerrillas as the enemies of the dictatorships, but rather as their cause.[6] Thus, the projected class struggle never took place.[7]
    Montoneros did not think about their armed violence as a response to a threat to society, but as the key of their identity. Thus, they declined the chance to achieve their goals by peaceful means once democracy was restored.[8] Instead, they killed the unionist José Ignacio Rucci in 1973 and declared war on Isabel Perón in 1974.

    Incidentally when John Paul II was priest and Bishop in Poland he did not openly call for the overthrow of the Communist dictatorship. Would Fintan O’Toole have praised him if he did?

  6. Joe O'Leary

    “to rain on other people’s hopes” — I asked Fr de Lubac what he thought of the new pope JP II and he spluttered with indignation that Le Monde journalist Henri Tincq had warned against a “cult of personality”. But Tincq was right to counter the prevailing euphoria. Hope is one thing, infantilism and wishful thinking another.

  7. Joe O'Leary

    Please remember that Benedict washed laymen’s feet, shifting to priests only in later years (perhaps to make some theological point about ministry) and that he celebrated mass in prison at Christmas, even taking a stand for prisoners’ rights. Cosmetic changes are not going to bring about deep church reform. To play the new pope love of Christ off against the old pope’s is childish; both clearly are men of deep devotion. And devotion alone does not bring about church reform, but can actually reinforce conservative policies.

  8. Gene Carr

    O’Toole’s observations remind me of the attitude of the Communist state prosecutor played by Jack Hawkins in the 1960s film “The Prisioner”. His task is to discredit the Catholic Archbishop who is an obstacle to the revolutionary goals of the regime. (The film is based on the case of Cardinal Minzenty). The Archbishop played by Alex Guinness is completely innocent of any allegations made against him. Hawkins is frank with him and even tells him that “as he is an obstacle to the Communist goals, my job is to discredit you”. Cleverly, however he plays on the Archbishops’s Catholic consciousness of sin and repentence and with what came to be called ‘brainwashing’ induced enough ‘guilt’ to persuade the Archbishop that he must have done something wrong. That was then. Nowadays the Marxist virus has mutated and the ‘brainwashing’ is conducted more subtely though the instruments of culture particularly mass media. O’Toole is one of the arch pratictioners.

  9. Darlene Starrs

    I realize we may never know to what length of service Pope Francis would go……but, I believe, he is also the kind of “priest”, or “bishop”, who like Bishop Romero, would have a communion service, on a dusty, rural road, with guns pointed at him. I think, that might well be the calibre of man and priest that he is.

    It is with “child-like” faith, that I accept this man as genuinely, aspiring to serve Christ and the Church. I believe that to think Pope Francis will set the Church on a course of reform is completely reasonable.
    How he approaches the CDF will be very telling.

  10. Padair

    2, 4 and 5 I’d be thinking right.

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