I don’t remember hearing the name of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who became Pope Francis in March, or any of his fellow Argentinian Jesuits when I was in Buenos Aires in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. They seemed strangely silent in such harrowing times when the fundaments of decent civilization were being set at nought throughout the Western Hemisphere at the multiplying demands of the Cold War.

POPE FRANCIS: Untying the Knots, by Paul Vallely. Bloomsbury, 2013, 224 pp., $20.95 (paperback)

They kept their peace, for instance, when their brother Bishop Enrique Angelelli was murdered by the country’s uniformed terrorists at the orders of Gen. Jorge Videla and Adm. Emilio Massera.

I do remember the lines of armed police with their dogs in Calle Florida, the Rodeo Drive of the Argentinian capital; I’ll never forget the ESMA, the naval mechanical school, the handsome white building on its wide avenue in the Barrio Norte, the smart part of town where uniformed torturers learned their repulsive technique of sending their opponents screaming to their death — sometimes from aircraft over the waters of the River Plate — as the regime’s servants made a few pesos plundering their property and selling their babies to the highest bidders in the name of the defence of “Western Christian civilization.” Signs outside the ESMA, I recall, reminded motorists not to linger lest they be shot.

These were times of Western-supported terrorism imposed on Argentina by a succession of local monsters who combined with their neighbors, Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay, the Brazilian generals, Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Hugo Banzer in Bolivia and the military non-entities who disgraced the international reputation of Uruguay. Outside help was supplied from Washington not just by Henry Kissinger but also, U.S. writers tend to forget, by Jimmy Carter.

The Catholic Church in Argentina had few to rival in valor Cardinal Raul Silva in Santiago in his opposition to the military putsch, or Paulo Evaristo Lins Arns, pastor of Sao Paulo, and Helder Camara of Olinda and Recife, Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador and their six fellow Jesuits of the same city who were assassinated by marksmen trained in the U.S.

I don’t remember Bergoglio and company because they outrageously kept their silence over the 30,000 dead in the military terrorists’ onslaught against society. Indeed the Argentinian Jesuit leadership did its best to minimize the crimes and was aided by the Vatican’s diplomats, notably Archbishop Pio Laghi. The latter reckoned his spiritual duty to believers would be famously advanced by regularly playing tennis with the cowardly Massera, the master of the ESMA.

The character of the times was confirmed when Pope John Paul II went on to appoint Laghi to the nunciature in Washington where Bush I called him “an old family friend” and helped the Polish pope to destroy the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

The choice of Bergoglio that the cardinal-electors made at the last papal conclave was widely greeted with dismay; many Catholics were aghast that the winning candidate could be selected from a crew that for years had been led by Antonio Quarracino, Buenos Aires’ archbishop who had a penchant for large limousines and expensive, tasteless hotels.

Paul Vallely is to be complimented for the rapid work he put into this biography of the new pope, though it is peppered with all too many minor errors. Happily the author refused to accept the impression carefully fostered by the Vatican that we have a profoundly humble and good-hearted pope suitable for embrace by any bien-pensant. Vallely has wisely distanced himself from the hysterical demands for an immediate canonization that shouts of “Santo subito!” represented on the death of John Paul II, the artificer of the long and tenacious campaign to push John XXIII’s thrilling and much needed reforms of the Second Vatican Council into history. Nor does the author think that taking public transport is the key to sainthood.

Vallely’s attitude is rather to accept the evidence of Argentinian authors such as Horacio Verbitsky. These say that the conservative Bergoglio was passive in front of the crimes of the day and deaf to the cries of the poor and indeed of some of his fellow Jesuits who were closer to the lessons of the gospel than he himself was. The author says the new pontiff has mended his ways.

He underlines the new pope’s constant confession that he had erred greatly as a Jesuit — ignoring the victims of Western-supported terrorism, betraying friends to the torturers and halting efforts to stop the impoverishment of millions.

Vallely remarks, “Bergoglio behaved recklessly and has been trying to atone for his behaviour ever since.”

That prompts two thoughts. First, let’s hope that Vallely has read Bergoglio correctly, second, when will British Catholic leaders forswear the search for honors and, in this time of creeping war and impoverishment, start following the examples of such as Cardinal Silva and Archbishop Romero?

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