Meeting the challenges

April 9, 2013 in News

According to Michael Campbell-Johnston SJ, former Provincial of the British Province, the new pope will confront “a formidable challenge on several fronts”, not least the implementation of the Vatican II’s vision of collegiality and social justice. With this in mind, he remembers his disagreements with Fr Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, some decades ago over how Jesuits should respond to the Latin American military dictatorships. He acknowledges readily, however, that the situation Fr Bergoglio faced was highly complex and that there were no simple answers. The same perhaps holds for the Church. Fr Campbell-Johnson is sanguine, however, that Pope Francis will prove able to meet the challenges.

Pope Francis

I remember Pope Francis, or Jorge Mario Bergoglio as I knew him, when he was Provincial of the Jesuits in Argentina. I first met him in Buenos Aires in 1977. Those were the days when the three Cono Sur countries, Chile, Argentina and Brazil, were ruled by harsh right-wing military regimes known as ‘National Security States’.

These were based on the principle that “The nation is absolute or it is nothing. A nation can accept no limitation of its absolute power”. On the pretext of combatting international communism, the state assumes total control over all dimensions of public life including education, communications, labour relations, the judiciary and many other organisms designed to safeguard basic human rights. Anyone questioning the status quo is automatically considered subversive and such measures as arbitrary arrest and even torture are justified. This poses acute problems for the Church since the governments advocating such policies themselves claim to be catholic and acting according to the principles of the Gospel.

This was the situation in Argentina when I first met Fr Bergoglio. I was visiting our Jesuit Social Institutes throughout Latin America where in many of the countries they were facing opposition and even persecution. In some they were forced to act under-ground and in secrecy. But this was not the situation for our Institute in Buenos Aires which was able to function freely because it never criticised or opposed the government. As a result there were justice issues it could not address or even mention. This was the topic I remember discussing at length with Fr Bergoglio. He naturally defended the existing situation though I tried to show him how it was out of step with our other social institutes on the continent. Our discussion was lengthy and inconclusive since we never reached an agreement.

At the time there were an estimated 6,000 political prisoners in Argentina and another 20,000 ‘disaparecidos’, people who had ‘been disappeared’. And there was widespread evidence of torture and assassination. On returning to Rome, I received a copy of a letter addressed to the Pope and signed by over 400 Argentinian mothers and grandmothers who had ‘lost’ children or other relatives and were begging the Vatican to exert some pressure on the military junta. I took it into the Secretariat of State but never received any acknowledgement.

This is not to blame Fr Bergoglio but rather to show the sort of situation in which he was living at the time. Though certainly not accepting it, there seems to be little he or our social institute could do to change it. For himself, he led a poor and simple life and was well respected by his fellow Jesuits. One of five children, his father was a railway worker and his mother a housewife. As a teenager he had a lung removed owing to an infection. At the age of 21 he joined the Jesuits and went through the normal course of studies, being ordained priest in 1969. He became Jesuit Provincial and afterwards was novice master. He also taught theology and was rector of our seminary in San Miguel. He went to Sankt Georgen in Germany to work on a doctorate and afterwards returned to Argentina to become confessor and spiritual director at the seminary in Córdoba.

In 1992 he was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Buenos Aires and, six years later, succeeded Cardinal Quaracino as Archbishop of Buenos Aires. In February of 2001 he was created Cardinal by Pope John Paul II and given a number of administrative positions in the Roman Curia. He became known for personal humility, doctrinal conservatism and a commitment to social justice. His simple life style contributed to his reputation for humility. He lived in a small apartment rather than in the palatial bishop’s residence. He gave up his chauffeured limousine and travelled by public transport. And he bought and cooked his own meals.

On the death of John Paul II in 2005 he was considered one of the ‘papabile’ cardinals. He took part in the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI. According to an article in La Stampa, he was in close contention with Cardinal Ratzinger during the election until he made an emotional plea that the cardinals should not vote for him. Now that they have, we will have to wait and see how he tackles the many problems facing the Church at the moment. It is not easy to predict since on some issues he could be fairly radical yet conservative on others.

Earlier in the year, long before Pope Benedict resigned, I wrote a brief note under the title ‘A next Pope’ which outlined some of the issues I felt needed to be faced and the sort of Pope needed to face them. Since I believe they are still relevant and will hopefully figure large on the new Pope’s agenda, I take the liberty of ending with them here.

What qualities should the new Pope possess ? “He should clearly be a man of visible holiness, that is, he should depend on God’s strength rather than his own personal gifts to carry out the awesome task entrusted to him. He should be a strong leader, not in the sense of controlling people and events directly himself, but by inspiring others to cooperate and give of their best in a shared ministry”.

But the gift I emphasised most was “an acceptance of and a determined dedication to fulfilling the decrees of Vatican ll”. The Church has been accused of resisting these and, in the opinion of many, even of betraying them. “Hopefully the next Pope will finish a journey started but never completed. This would mean taking action on several issues. The continuing focus on the hierarchy goes right against one of the key changes advocated by Vatican ll. The role of the Christian in today’s world must be one of service to others and searching with them for the truth in humility and honesty. The division among Christians calls for understanding and openness. A greater respect should be paid to local cultures and beliefs and there should be a stronger and more practical concern for the poor. And not only knowledge but implementation of the Church’s social teaching should be obligatory”.

This represents a formidable challenge on several fronts. But hopefully our new Pope will prove to be capable not only of facing up to it but also of making some progress in resolving it. This is a hope that many will share as they wish him well and assure him of their support.

Michael Campbell-Johnston SJ