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Bergoglio’s List: Pope Francis and political oppression in Argentina

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 06, 2014 | In Reviews

Within hours of the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the papacy, the world press began to retail stories that Fr. Bergoglio may have been complicit in serious human rights violations under the military regime which ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1983. This innuendo was based primarily on reports originating with the discredited regime itself, reports which were later shown to be part of the regime’s propaganda campaign to sow doubt among its opponents.

Fortunately, the various reports displayed considerable interpretive confusion, and this prompted veteran Italian investigative journalist Nello Scavo to dig as deeply as possible into the actions and relationships of Fr. Bergoglio during the Argentinian reign of terror. What Scavo discovered is that, much as with Msgr. Hugh O’Flaherty and Oskar Schindler in response to Hitler, there was a significant list of endangered men and women whom Fr. Bergoglio smuggled out of Argentina under the very nose of the regime, saving their lives.

During these years, the military government of Argentina, though obviously right-wing, exercised a lawless totalitarian control over the country that was typical of the worst Communist regimes. Round-ups were frequent of people suspected of being hostile to the regime or in favor of social justice. These would be held and tortured for long periods in order to get the names of other potential enemies of the State, and then they were either dumped in mass graves or, very commonly, flown over the Atlantic and dropped into the ocean from lethal heights.

Although initial estimates placed the numbers of these chupados (those who had been “sucked up”) at just under 10,000, further research has indicated that 30,000 is a more accurate estimate. Together, they are called the desaparecidos—those who were “disappeared”. In a parallel horror, the government routinely seized newborn babies from women giving birth in hospitals and gave them to high-ranking military families.

Essentially, this brutal regime sought to eliminate anyone who was concerned about social conditions, which even included shutting down sociology and political science departments in the nation’s universities. Among priests and religious, those were most at risk who lived and worked among the poor. Anyone who did this, regardless of motive, was dismissed as a Communist and treated as an enemy of the State. Priests were murdered, and even one bishop who attended the funeral of two murdered priests and asked questions. Among the Jesuits, it was also those who ministered to the poor who were targeted.

But the regime never discovered the defiant resourcefulness of the Provincial Superior of the Jesuits in Argentina, Jorge Maria Bergoglio.

Bergoglio’s Methods

Their strength within the Catholic Church and their links to an international Order put the Jesuits in a better position than most to transmit information to the outside world. Moreover, because they had their own university complete with housing and food service, the Argentine Jesuits at least had the possibility of working quietly to protect people from the military regime. Of course, this depended on their ability to act without arousing the suspicions of the government, which could easily move against them should it have “credible” evidence of “subversive” activity. The young Provincial—Bergoglio was 36 when elected in 1973 and 39 when the military coup took place—seems to have immediately realized the possibilities and the dangers of his position. Moreover, his instructions from Rome were to do whatever he could to protect his brothers in the Order.

Most of the lay people, seminarians and priests who were protected by Bergoglio were targeted by the regime but not yet arrested. Whenever possible, he would bring them into the Jesuit compound in Buenos Aires as if they were seeking spiritual direction or considering a vocation. Bergoglio kept what he was doing secret, in most cases, even from the other Jesuits there, knowing that if any of them were detained and tortured, disaster would be almost inevitable.

He also instructed each of his guests to observe a standard series of security precautions, such as always going about in small groups so that they were harder to “disappear”; keeping silent about their true circumstances even among others within the compound; and avoiding the local post office, instead giving their letters to Bergoglio, who would see that they were mailed from outlying postal units, where the government was less rigorous in examining the mail.

The Provincial also taught these endangered “guests” to write letters and engage in phone conversations only in a kind of code, using conversations about the weather (“very stormy”) or health (“have been sick but am now recovering”) to indicate their situation to those with whom they felt a need to communicate. He even urged three seminarians, whom he protected on behalf of the murdered bishop, to avoid the main stairways and to use the elevators only when otherwise empty, so that nobody else there overhear anything suggesting they were seminarians sought by the government.

Bergoglio would house his “guests” with the Jesuits only for as long as it took to arrange to move them out of the country through secret and circuitous paths. Working with Jesuits and bishops in neighboring countries, and with the help of the Apostolic Delegate Pio Laghi and a few others, Bergoglio was often able to get required passports and other papers. He would smuggle his charges to an isolated spot where they could cross a border. There they would be met by trustworthy friends in the new country, and finally taken to relatively safe airports from which they could be flown to Europe.

Occasionally, however, the Jesuit Provincial had to try to free priests who had already been seized. In the most prominent case of two Jesuit priests who had been working among the poor, Bergoglio used a network of informants to find out where they were being held, discovering that it was at the naval center (ESMA). He met with both Admiral Massera and General Vidella (two of the ruling triumvirate) to demand their release.

In the latter case, he found out the name of the chaplain who said Mass for Vidella, convinced the chaplain to feign illness so that Bergoglio could take his place, got into the General’s home, and told him point blank that he knew the government had his priests and, as their provincial, if they were not released, he would denounce the whole affair. Instead of being murdered, the priests were promptly drugged and dumped in the middle of a swamp to distance them from the naval center. It took many months for Bergoglio to get even this far, but his priests survived to be smuggled out of the country.

Bergoglio’s List

Nello Scavo, the investigative journalist mentioned at the outset, published a five-part series in the Italian newspaper which employed him, Avvenire, and this caused something of a revolution in media speculation on the Pope’s past. Scavo went on to publish a book on the subject in 2013 entitled (for obvious cinematic reasons) La Lista di Bergoglio. It has now been published in English by Saint Benedict Press: Bergolgio’s List. The research was difficult because so many who had been helped by Bergoglio wanted to honor his long-standing policy of saying as little as possible about his role, so that it would not be interpreted as an effort of the Church to capitalize on an unfortunate situation.

But Scavo dug out the truth. His book ably covers the situation in Argentina under military rule, the horrors of the regime, a dozen case studies of people Bergoglio saved, and even the positive conclusion of Amnesty International—no friend of the Church—that, despite extensive study, there was no evidence against the Pope. In a fascinating appendix, Scavo also includes the extensive testimony given by Cardinal Bergoglio in 2010 in the trial concerning the atrocities at ESMA (the Argentine naval center). It is significant that in his testimony he distinguishes sharply between priests who pursued liberation theology with “Marxist hermeneutics” and those who, attentive to the instructions of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on this subject, sought a truly Christian liberation for the poor.

Indeed, some of the priests whom Bergoglio saved were aware that he did not approve of certain aspects of their ministry. But when it came to saving lives, this did not matter. In all, Scavo estimates that, while he was the Jesuit Provincial in Argentina, Pope Francis definitely saved dozens of people of every stripe, from atheists to devout Catholics, and most likely more than a hundred. But with fresh information still emerging from that dark period, Scavo is convinced that Bergoglio’s list is not yet complete.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: garedawg - Nov. 08, 2014 11:48 AM ET USA

    It sounds similar also to the experiences of Pope Pius XII during WWII.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Nov. 07, 2014 1:59 PM ET USA

    Not being God, but aspiring to imitate Christ, Bishop Bergoglio did not know the condition of the souls he served. Thus he had no choice but to save both the wheat and the chaff, and to let God sort them out at the harvest. True to his calling, the future pope did his duty.

  • Posted by: Edward I. - Nov. 07, 2014 12:05 AM ET USA

    We are blessed to have such a man at the helm of our ship. God loves his Church.

  • Posted by: mario.f.leblanc5598 - Nov. 06, 2014 8:16 PM ET USA

    So our Holy Father had a life experience that must be similar in some ways to what was happening in the first few centuries of the Church. Let us thank the Holy Spirit for such a gift, and our Lord Jesus Christ for keeping his promise of being with us 'til the end of the world.