Monday, May 25, 2015





 

Bergoglio’s List: How a Young Francis Defied a Dictatorship and Saved Dozens of Lives.  By Nello Scavo, Saint Benedict Press, 2014.

 

When Cardinal Bergoglio was elected to the papacy and became Pope Francis, mostly only people from his home in Argentina and people interested in prominent Church figures knew about him and his work.  Instantly becoming one of the most famous men in the world, journalists scrambled to find out more about the man who was now seated upon the throne of St. Peter.

 

Over the course of the first several hours after white smoke wafted across the sky over Vatican City, a series of contrasting stories came over the news and popped up over the Internet like mushrooms after a heavy rain.  Some of the stories were laudatory, praising the new pope’s simple lifestyle, piety, and kindness.  Other stories were far less complementary.  A number of reporters pounced upon the rumor that decades earlier, Fr. Bergoglio had been an active participant in the atrocities that took place in the middle of Argentina’s “Dirty War.”

In order to explain the historical background, it is necessary to explain the details of Argentina’s “Dirty War,” and the context of these allegations:

 

“At this writing, summer of 2014, two generations have grown up without having lived through Argentina’s “Dirty War,” which pitted a far-right-wing military dictatorship or “junta” against anyone considered subversive.  The “subversives” targeted by the junta ranged from genuine Marxist guerillas, to members of trade unions, to Catholic “church ladies” who dared petition the government to reveal the fates of family members who had been arrested and then just disappeared.

 

To this day there is no accurate count of how many people fell victim to the regime.  A rough calculation is 19,000 shot down in the streets, 30,000 “disappeared” and presumed dead (among them approximately 500 children), untold thousands imprisoned, and perhaps as many as two million Argentinians who went into exile.

 

At the same time, there is no accurate count of how many escaped thanks to the courage of men and women who risked their own lives to save others, sometimes complete strangers.  Their heroism recalls the men and women in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II who saved the lives of countless Jews, Slavs, Russians, Gypsies, and other targets of the Third Reich.”

 

It is undeniable that many tens of thousands of people were slaughtered during the “Dirty War.”  What is more controversial is determining who was involved in the atrocities, and who actively opposed them.  As is often the case in the wake of a major massacre, there was little actual justice and a great deal of finger-pointing.  One person who found himself being accused of complicity in the crimes was Fr. Bergoglio.  After the fall of the junta, and again around the time of the new pope’s election, Fr. Bergoglio was targeted as an example of Church corruption.  In Bergoglio’s List, Nello Scavo attacks these accusations as the foulest and most baseless slander, the product of unscrupulous and morally bankrupt individuals who wished to distract from their own culpability and to cast aspersions upon one of the most prominent figures in the Argentine Church.

 

“After the junta had collapsed, former members of the regime and some of their sympathizers tried to destroy Father Bergoglio’s reputation by suggesting he had been a double agent, occasionally smuggling out of the country people wanted by the regime, but more often cooperating with the regime in its round up of priests, intellectuals, and others who opposed the junta.  St. John Paul II experienced a similar detraction campaign in his native Poland under the Communists.  Publically tarring the reputation of political opponents is a common practice of corrupt regimes, including the former Soviet Empire.”

 

Bergoglio’s List takes its name from the celebrated book and movie Schindler’s List, about the man who saved numerous Jews from the Nazis.  Comparatively, Fr. Bergoglio rescued dozens of people who were target by the Junta, saving them in a wide variety of bold and clever ways.  Throughout the book, Scavo addresses various accusations and disproves them, crafting a defense and an exoneration of the Pope, as well as creating a heroic story that will make the readers wonder why the narrative isn’t better known. Scavo crafts his narrative as the story of a brave and principled man trying to battle the forces of an iniquitous and bloodthirsty government.

 

Bergoglio’s List is the story of how then Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio– now Pope Francis– risked his life to save approximately 100 people who had been identified as “enemies” of the Argentinian junta.  It appears there were dozens more whom he was able to warn before the authorities could come to arrest them.

 

It takes incredible courage to stand up to evil on a grand scale, and that is what the military junta was.  In 1976 the armed forces launched a coup d’etat that toppled the government of President Perón.  The junta drove out of office governors and judges across Argentina; dissolved congress and the supreme court; abolished the constitution; banned labor unions; censored newspapers and other media outlets; and outlawed all forms of political dissent.

 

The viciousness of the junta’s campaign against its opponents is difficult to comprehend.  The junta created a climate of terror in which people were picked up on the streets and dragged away to detention centers.  There they were brutally tortured to extract confessions and forced to incriminate others.  Then so often these prisoners simply “disappeared.”  Many were shot and dumped into unmarked graves.  Others were thrown from helicopters while still alive into the open ocean, their bodies never to be found again.”

 

Over the course of Bergoglio’s List, Fr. Bergoglio comes across not so much as Oskar Schindler, who subverted the Nazi system from within by hobbling the Nazi armament industry and sheltering Jews, but as the Scarlet Pimpernel, the swashbuckling character from Baroness Orczy’s series of novels, where an ingenious and fearless system of heroes saved aristocrats from certain death at the hands of the French Revolution.  Most notable is the fact that Fr. Bergoglio did not just rescue faithful Catholics or members of the clergy, but also individuals who were far from friends of the Church.

 

“Father Bergoglio, at the time superior of the Jesuits in Argentina, detested the viciousness of the regime.  He began helping anyone who appealed to him for protection.  One of the people on “the List” is Gonzalo Mosca, a left-wing labor organizer who was staunchly anti-clerical.  He had hoped he could lose himself in the vast suburbs of Buenos Aires, but the military hunted him down.  When the caretaker of his apartment building warned him that the military was closing in and ready to kill him, Mosca turned to the only person he felt he could trust, his brother, who was a Jesuit priest.

 

Father Mosca said he thought he had a solution.  He called his philosophy professor from his days in the seminary, Father Bergoglio.  At a predetermined location, Bergoglio picked up Mosca and drove him to the Jesuit College of San Miguel.  There he was hidden for four days while Bergoglio organized an escape route that called for a brief air flight, a boat trip into Brazil, a stay with the Brazilian Jesuits, and finally a flight to Europe and safety.  Recalling what Bergoglio did for him, Mosca has said, “I don’t know of other people who would have done the same thing.  I don’t know if anyone else would have saved me without knowing me at all.”

 

The book is filled with stories of all sorts of people who were rescued.  One was a female judge and a mother with three children, who were hidden aboard a fruit boat bound for Uruguay.  Muckraking journalists, activists, political dissidents, and people who worked with the poor were also targeted by the junta, and had to be saved. The details of the atrocities committed by the junta are so disturbing that they make the reader wonder why these horrific events are not better known by the general public.  Several of the people interviewed in this book say that they kept these stories quiet so as to protect other survivors from assorted repercussions, or so as not to give the impression that they capitalizing on the time they spent with the man who would become pope.  Throughout the book, Fr. Bergoglio comes across as a quietly heroic figure who knows that it is often wise not to advertise one’s good deeds.

 

There are a couple of flaws in the book.  The translation could be more polished in some places– some passages are phrased in a somewhat clunky manner, and at times certain sentences could be phrased more elegantly.  Nevertheless, Bergoglio’s List is always a compelling read, and one can only hope that more stories about rescued people are revealed and made public.

 

–Chris Chan