Pope Francis was joking when he recently told Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa that his fellow Argentines were surprised when he chose the name of the saint who lived as a beggar: “Because I am an Argentine, they expected me to call myself Jesus II.”
The pope, who was born in Buenos Aires, likes to joke about the notorious arrogance of his fellow countrymen. A month earlier he explained in an interview with a Mexican television reporter that Argentines are “rather vain and arrogant” and asked her if she knew how Argentines commit suicide. “Well very simple,” he said, “they climb on to their egos and then jump off!”
Another joke told about Argentines (usually by themselves) sizes up Pope Francis: “What is the eighth wonder of the world?” The answer: “A humble Argentine.”
Well, Jorge Mario Bergolio is just such a wonder. He is a humble man in high office. Like St. Francis he eschews opulence and worldly vanities. And, like the saint who gave up all his possessions, he seeks to imitate Christ. He comes out with what the media call “bombshell quotes” yet his statements on controversial subjects reveal a man of tolerance and humility. Most notably, when flying back to Rome from Brazil on his first trip abroad he told reporters: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge him?” Pope Francis sees himself as “a sinner” not a saint. It is his humanity that has made him so popular.
There is, however, a dark shadow over his past. When he was Father Provincial of the Jesuit Order in Argentina during the 1976-83 military dictatorship, two priests who, like the saint whose name Bergolio chose, were living and working with the poor in one of the appalling slums appropriately called villas miserias (misery neighborhoods), were abducted by one of the military’s deaths squads. A group of young Catholics who worked with the priests, including a former nun, were also taken away, never to appear again. Bergolio, in charge of the two priests, disapproved of their political involvement and disowned them. They taught “liberation theology,” which looked like Marxism to the then-conservative Bergolio.
I know, because I covered the story of the priests’ abduction, that Bergolio’s intervention was a factor in saving the lives of the priests, who were released from a secret military jail and torture center where thousands were sent to their deaths. The incident provides an insight into what motivates Bergolio’s break from Vatican tradition. Bergolio has on his conscience the fact that he remained silent, as did most other people in Argentina. But, as Nobel Peace Prize laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel has confirmed, in responding to accusations that Bergolio supported the military dictatorship’s ruthless elimination of “communists, subversives and terrorists,” he was never an accomplice of the military dictatorship.
I never knew Bergolio during his rise to Archbishop of Buenos Aires and a Cardinal, but I have had the privilege of friendship with people who have known him all their adult lives. They visit him in Rome and tell of a man who lives as a modern-day St. Francis. He relaxes with them in shorts and a T-shirt, chats, sipping Argentine herbal tea, mate, from a gourd. This “people’s pope” recently surprised a Buenos Aires journalist by calling him from Rome to say he liked to be criticized. The journalist concluded that Pope Francis personifies the very best of Argentine characteristics — including un-Argentine humility.
Pope Francis has now taken an important step in his evolution from being a silent witness to the horror of a dictatorship that secretly murdered thousands of people. Suspects were seized from their homes, routinely tortured in clandestine prisons and their bodies disposed of by burning, burying in unmarked mass graves, or thrown into the sea, unconscious but alive, from planes. They became known as “los desaparecidos” (the disappeared) and many remain untraced to this day. A footnote to the horror is that hundreds of babies were born next to the torture chambers. Their mothers were pregnant when they were abducted. They were allowed to give birth. Then they were killed and their babies given to “suitable families” connected to the military and police. More than a hundred have recovered their identities through the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo. But several hundred people who were born in the squalor of the prison camps have still not been traced.
The role of the Catholic Church during the “Dirty War” in Argentina has yet to be established. Bergolio has an enemy. Argentine investigative journalist Horacio Verbitsky alleges that Bergolio handed over the priests to the military by removing the protection of the Jesuit Order. Verbitsky campaigned to prevent Bergolio becoming pope, describing him as “ersatz” — essentially calling him a fake. Now, one of Pope Francis’s closest collaborators, Monsignor Guillermo Larcher, has confirmed that the pope intends to open the Vatican archives to reveal what the Church knew about “los desaparecidos” and the missing babies. He said that making the records available would take “serious work to organize everything in the Vatican archives in order to search and help many people.” It would take time, he said, but would be “a beautiful thing” because they “will shed light on many situations that have been left without explanation.”
I think that the opening of the archives would lift that dark shadow over Pope Francis, because it would reveal him as he described himself: a sinner, guilty of that most human of sins, the sin of omission.
Robert Cox, a former assistant editor of The Post and Courier, was editor of the Buenos Aires Herald from 1968 to 1980.