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Pope remembers troubled years of dictatorship in Argentina

Pope Francis at the end of his audience

Antoine Mekary | ALETEIA

I.Media - published on 05/10/23

In a meeting with Jesuits in Hungary, the Pope spoke about the difficulties he faced when he was in Argentina, the Second Vatican Council, and abusive priests.

During the military dictatorship, the situation in Argentina was “confusing and uncertain,” Pope Francis explained on April 29, 2023, during a discussion with 32 Hungarian Jesuits. As he usually does when traveling, Pope Francis met his fellow Congregation members at the Apostolic Nunciature in Budapest, on the second day of his visit to Hungary. The exchange was published in the Italian Jesuit magazine,La Civiltà Cattolica.

The Pope spoke at length about the controversies surrounding his time as provincial of the Argentine Jesuits in the 1970s and the attempts to weaken his position when he was Cardinal-Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

An important part of this dialogue revolves around the controversial situation of two Jesuits, Orlando Yorio and Ferenc Jálics, Argentinian and Hungarian respectively. In the 1970s, as Argentina was being ruled by a military dictatorship, the two priests were imprisoned and tortured for nine months, while Jorge Mario Bergoglio was the local provincial of the Jesuits. 

The story of Orlando Yorio and Ferenc Jálics

One of the Hungarian Jesuits questioned Pope Francis about the “serious accusations” against him concerning this case. The Pope denounced the “legend” that he himself was behind the arrest of his two fellow priests. “A month ago the Argentine Bishops’ Conference published two volumes, of three planned, with all the documents related to what happened between the Church and the military. You will find everything there,” the Pope explained.

Although Orlando Yorio died in 2000 still at odds with his former provincial, Father Jálics met Pope Francis several times after being liberated and even concelebrated Mass with him as a sign of reconciliation. In the discussion with the Jesuits, the Pontiff explained that Father Jálics was his “spiritual father and confessor during [his] first and second years of theology.” 

However, the Pope did speak about the unease caused by this event, which persisted until Father Jálics’ death in 2021. “When he came the last time to see me in the Vatican, I could see that he was suffering because he didn’t know how to talk to me. There was a distance. The wounds of those past years remained both in me and in him, because we both experienced that persecution,” Francis explained, suggesting that this episode remains painful within the Society of Jesus and has earned it a mixed reputation.

“When Jálics and Yorio were taken by the military, the situation in Argentina was bewildering and it was not at all clear what should be done,” the Pope said. “I did what I felt I had to do to defend them. It was a very painful affair.”

“Jálics was a good man, a man of God, a man who sought God, but he fell victim to an entourage to which he did not belong,” the Pope said, referring to the “active resistance” of guerrilla groups in the neighborhood where the Hungarian was serving as a priest. 

“Some people in the government wanted to ‘cut my head off’”

The Pope then explained that “some people in the government wanted to ‘cut [his] head off,’”when he was the Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires. Without citing names, he seems to be referring to the entourage of the left-wing Peronist leaders Nestor Kirchner (president of Argentina from 2003 to 2007) and his wife Cristina Kirchner (president from 2007 to 2015).

“They brought up not so much this issue of Jálics, but they questioned my whole way of acting during the dictatorship,” explained the Argentine Pontiff. He was particularly attacked by journalist Horacio Verbitsky who published many investigations on the period concerning the dictatorship. 

The Pope recalled an interrogation he went through in the episcopal residence, which lasted 4 hours and 10 minutes. He said he tried to “answer truthfully” about the “other cases of people who had asked for help.”

“From my point of view, the only serious question, with substance and well expressed, came from the lawyer who belonged to the Communist Party,” the Pontiff explained. “Thanks to that question, things were clarified. In the end, my innocence was established.” 

The Pope then added that one of the judges, who came to Rome several years later with a delegation from Argentina, told him “clearly that they had received instructions from the government to convict [him].” After his election as Pope, Francis’ relationship with Cristina Kirchner improved greatly.

Talking to an abuser is repulsive

Another question for Pope Francis in Hungary came from a Jesuit who asked the Pope about how to accompany priests who have been found guilty of sexual abuse. “The abuser is to be condemned, indeed, but as a brother. Condemning him is to be understood as an act of charity,” the Pope responded.

Abusers are “an enemy” and they “deserve punishment, but they also deserve pastoral care,” Francis explained, highlighting that “they are God’s children too.” This answer is in line with the Pope’s general outlook on criminals, and he has often spoken of how to treat people in prison.

Nevertheless, the Pope did not give a precise answer and acknowledged the difficulty of facing this task in the case of abusers. “When you hear what abuse leaves in the hearts of abused people, the impression you get is very powerful. Even talking to the abuser involves revulsion; it’s not easy,” he admitted.

Vatican II: fighting the “nostalgic disease” of going backwards

Asked about the link between the Second Vatican Council and the modern world, the Pope explained that “the Council is still being applied” and repeated what he has said on another occasion, namely that “it takes a century for a Council to be assimilated.”

“The resistance is terrible. There is an unbelievable restorationism,” the Pope said, insisting on the importance of following “the flow of history and grace.”

The Pope denounced the “nostalgic disease” of going backwards, meaning “the reaction against the modern.”

He explained that this is why he decided that newly consecrated priests who want to celebrate according to the 1962 Roman Missal will need to ask for permission. “After all the necessary consultations, I decided this because I saw that the good pastoral measures put in place by John Paul II and Benedict XVI were being used in an ideological way, to go backward. It was necessary to stop this indietrismo (going backwards), which was not in the pastoral vision of my predecessors,” the Pope explained. 

Remembering his ordination

Questioned by a young Hungarian Jesuit about to be ordained, the Pope remembered his own ordination in 1969. The Pontiff recalled a “beautiful, simple celebration without pomp or ostentation,” with four other priests, three of whom are now deceased.

The Pontiff also emphasized that his former colleagues from the chemical laboratory where he had worked had come to the celebration even though they were “all atheists and communists.”

“One of them was seized and then killed by the military,” Francis added. 

ArgentinaHungaryPope Francis
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