When I woke up on Wednesday morning of 13 March, there were a number of texts waiting to be read in my cell phone. I learned immediately that while I was snoring in my sleep the white smoke at the Vatican sparked the roar of happy voices in the St. Peter’s Square. The new Holy Father, Pope Francis, was just elevated to the chair of Peter.
Quickly after going through the morning rituals, I went to our common room and joined my confreres watching cable TV so I could have a glimpse of how Pope Francis looked and to start getting to know him. The basic information started to pile up: he was formerly Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires (finally, a Pope from outside Europe!), 76 years old (Chito Cardinal Tagle’s age proved to be a liability!), asked the people to bless him (so cool!) and a Jesuit (a white Pope! So what happens to the black one?).
And he took on the name of Francis, the mystic saint who renounced his family’s wealth and lived humbly among and served the poor. It was clear immediately that – with the combination of Francis, Jesuit and Argentinian – this new Pope would surprise the world.
Watching his face and his over-all demeanour, I was immediately reminded of a few of the Jesuits who taught me at the Ateneo de Davao College in 1963-67. Pope Francis’ face echoed the facial features of some of those beloved teachers. I then assumed that he belongs to that generation of Jesuits who taught their students to be critical thinkers while deepening their compassion for the disadvantaged and marginalized.
In the following days there would be more coverage on Pope Francis in both mainstream and social media. Friends and associates forwarded emails and blog entries and before the week was over, the lights and shadows surrounding the life of the new Holy Father surfaced in a manner that was not possible during the era between John XXIII to Benedict XVI.
Within a few days it was very clear that dramatic changes have taken place in the manner that “the world” – especially media, the world’s “watchful eyes” – would view the entry of a new Pope. In the epoch when the Roman Catholic Church was untainted with all sorts of scandals – from the sexual abuses to the corruption in its bureaucracy – there was universal acclamation when a new Pope got elected. No one dared write anything about the Pope’s past that would spoil the celebratory mood!
Not so with Pope Francis! With both the radical changes in the construct of media in the post-digital age spawned by the widespread use of the internet and the alliance between secular media and advocacy movements exposing those abuses and corruption charges, the sacred office of the Holy Father is no longer spared from media scrutiny and ensuing critique. As there were voices criticizing how Benedict XVI handled the sexual abuses when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, so now voices have arisen taking the then Archbishop of Buenos Aires to task for how he dealt with the repressive junta of Argentina during its tragic “Dirty Wars” period (1976-1983).
Pope Francis was that Archbishop; earlier he was the Jesuit Provincial. News stories (printed in prestigious papers such as The New York Times or issued by the AP) as well as blog postings (e.g. The Lede Blog: Updates, Analysis and Reaction to Choice of a Pope dated 13 March 2013) reported how Fr. and later Bishop Jorge Maria Bergoglio “has been accused of knowing about abuses and failing to do enough to stop them, during a period when as many as 30,000 people were abducted, tortured or killed by the dictatorship”.
However, a news story also claimed that “in a long interview published by an Argentine newspaper in 2010, he defended his behavior during the dictatorship… (saying) that he had helped hide people being sought for arrest or disappearance by the military because of their political views, had helped others leave Argentina and had lobbied the country’s military rulers directly for the release and protection of others”.
There are always two sides to a story. My hunch is that the human rights circles across the world – and they are quite influential – would not let go of this story until they are assured of the truth of the allegations based on hard facts.
If I may ask the reader’s indulgence, I would like to factor myself into this essay. Along with Fr. Angel Calvo, CMF, I travelled across Central and Latin America in the winter of 1980 on an exposure program to know more about Latin American Church theology and pastoral praxis. We were in Chile and Argentina after visiting Central America which at that time was seething with the impact of repressive regimes especially in Guatemala and El Salvador, although it was a different story in Nicaragua because of the Sandinistas’ victory over Somoza’s dictatorship.
Our impression was that the Jesuits’ praxis in dealing with the military dictatorships in Central America was very different from their confreres in Argentina. In Central America, especially in El Salvador, a few Jesuits were assassinated because of their militant stance. We met with lay human rights activists in Buenos Aires – clandestinely, of course as there were risks involved – and they complained that there was little support from the Church. At that time, Fr. Bergoglio must have certainly been very influential not just with the Jesuits but the institutional church of Argentina.
There were a number of significant convergences in terms of the landscape of Argentina and the Philippines in those tumultuous times as the Dirty War years (’76-’83) of the former were as brutal as the repressions under the latter’s Marcos’ authoritarian regime. Tens of thousands disappeared, were tortured and killed. As the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo courageously stood in stoic silence at the public square demanding to claim the bodies of their loved ones, religious women and mothers of the salvaged and tortured held placards in city plazas across our country with the same demands even as they denounced martial rule.
Never was Philippine society so divided and the lines were very clear: you either opposed the regime and did so with risks involved or you were in favour of its hold on power. Those who thought they were neither by staying “neutral” were actually on the side of those who favoured Marcos and his ilk. Reflecting Philippine society, the Church, too, was divided. There were bishops, priests, pastors, religious, seminarians and lay people who resisted the evil of martial rule; alas, they were a small minority. The rest would only wake up when it was safe and fashionable to go yellow!
Which was why when many of us became direct victims of the repression, there were church leaders who looked the other way. I would like to think I understood why and never bore a grudge against any one, including my very own Archbishop. And the reason was because there were other bishops, priests, religious, seminarians and lay people who were not afraid of the consequences of their stance and stood by those whose human rights were so brazenly violated.
And for me, there was Bishop Federico Escaler SJ. He was Rector of the Ateneo de Davao for most of my college years. When he became Bishop of Kidapawan he made it very clear that he wanted the Local Church to make a preferential option for the poor; in a martial rule, that also meant fully supporting the human rights campaign.
He and the late Bishop Bienvenido Tudtud of Marawi were my “bosses” when I worked as Executive Secretary of the defunct Mindanao-Sulu Pastoral Conference Secretariat. After I finished my term at the MSPCS, I got arrested. And to my eternal gratitude both of them stood by me despite the risks. And I was to find out later on that Bishop Escaler moved heaven and earth to meet with Madame Imelda Marcos to ask her to intervene on my behalf so I could be released from prison. She did meet him but Bishop Escaler was sorry he could not charm her enough so she would do the favour.
I would like to believe that this kind of story may have taken place in the life of Fr. Bergoglio and an Argentinian activist. As I would like to believe that he, as Pope Francis, is truly serious about the Church becoming a Church of the poor; but more so in walking the talk. I would like to further believe that his notion of being Church of the poor follows the track of his fellow Latin American Bishop, the late Helder Camara of Brazil, whose quote remains close to my heart when he said: “When I gave bread to the hungry, people called me a saint. But when I asked why they were hungry, they called me a communist.”
For now, abrazos Papa Francisco! We embrace you in our hearts and wish you well.
(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar of Davao City, former head of the Redemptorist Itinerant Mission Team and author of several books, including “To be poor and obscure,” and “Mystic Wanderers in the Land of Perpetual Departures,” writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English [A Sojourner’s Views] and the other in Binisaya [Panaw-Lantaw].)