Of Jesuits and the PopeBy Benjamin Pimentel
News that a Jesuit, Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, was chosen to be the next Pope quickly reminded me of another Jesuit and another Pope.
The Pope was John Paul II. The Jesuit was Fernando Cardenal of Nicaragua.
They had a rocky relationship. John Paul II was against Cardenal’s activism in Nicaragua where he helped launch a highly-successful literacy campaign. With the Pope’s endorsement, the Jesuits defrocked him.
The Pope also clashed with Cardenal’s brother, Ernesto, a Trappist priest who was also educated in Jesuit schools, and who, like Fernando, joined the fight against dictatorship in Nicaragua.
Ernesto also served in the Nicaraguan government as minister of culture, though he was best known as a poet. In a way, he endured a rougher treatment from the pontiff who didn’t hesitate to show, in a very public manner, his displeasure with his social activism.
When he arrived in Managua in 1983, Ernesto Cardenal was there to welcome him. He even knelt down before the Pope as a sign of respect. But with thousands watching, the TV cameras rolling, John Paul II rejected Cardenal’s act of humility and reverence. He wagged his finger at him, launching into a lecture as he stood in front of a kneeling priest, a church leader respected and beloved in Nicaragua and beyond for his role in fighting repression and for his poetry.
The new pontiff, Pope Francis, also is from a Latin American nation that once struggled with repression.
There are many things to like about him.
“Bergoglio may be basically conservative on many issues, but he’s no defender of clerical privilege, or insensitive to pastoral realities,” The Catholic Reporter said.
In Argentina, he is known for taking the bus to work, for his simple ways and lifestyle and his humility. He is known for his compassion for people living with HIV and AIDS, and once kissed and washed the feet of AIDS patients.
Last year, according to the Catholic Reporter, he publicly criticized priests who refused to baptize children born out of wedlock. He called their refusal a form of “rigorous and hypocritical neo-clericalism.”
But there are also allegations that during a dark chapter in his country’s history, the so-called Dirty War waged by the military, he didn’t do enough to protect priests opposed to the repression, to torture. Argentina is the land where the term desaparecidos first became widely used.
Some even accused him of having cooperated with the military rulers.
He has denied the accusations, and others have defended him. One of them was Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who also endured torture and abuse during the dictatorship, who told Time magazine, “There were bishops who were accomplices, but not Bergoglio.”
Still, in interview after interview, experts said the world should not to expect any dramatic changes from the world’s first Latin American Pope who happens to be a Jesuit. He is expected to be as conservative as his recent predecessors, perhaps even the Pope who once scolded his fellow priest in public and who endorsed the expulsion of his fellow Jesuit.
On National Public Radio one morning, a commentator noted how the Jesuits in the region were known as courageous social reformers and advocates of Liberation Theology, for pushing for justice for the poor and the oppressed. But Bergoglio, the expert was quick to add, was not one of them.
A Facebook friend was puzzled by the enthusiasm of many Filipinos over a Jesuit pope, asking, “Can someone please explain to me why we should be happy that the new Pope is a Jesuit?”
I understand to some extent. The Jesuits have been a force in the Philippines for centuries. I went to a Jesuit high school and have fond memories of Ateneo teachers, including priests, who lived up to the order’s tradition of intellectual discipline and compassion.
We were taught to be “men for others.” I spent my senior year tutoring public school elementary students one day a week.
Now, Ateneo and the Jesuits have also been criticized for elitism. It is, to some extent, an unfair criticism. I know many Ateneans and Jesuits who became social activists.
I wrote a book about one of them, Edgar Jopson, who became a symbol of Ateneo excellence. But then he embraced a radical path, one that took him to poor barrios and the urban poor, similar to the road the Cardenal brothers embraced.
That made the Jesuit hierarchy uncomfortable, the way the Cardenal brothers upset the Vatican.
After Edjop was killed in a raid on an underground house in Davao City in 1982, the Jesuits reluctantly let his family hold a memorial service at the Ateneo where Edjop spent much of his youth.
But it wasn’t much of a welcome.
His friend and fellow Atenista, the late poet Freddie Salanga, recalled later how during the wake, a Jesuit priest was “practically pleading with the family to please decide when to close the coffin and take it out.”
That enraged Salanga who wrote, “They may not have agreed with his brand of seeking justice, but the man had, undoubtedly, stood for the same thing many of them had been (sometimes triumphantly) preaching about, albeit under better protective cover.”
A new papacy is beginning, and for now, I choose to focus on the more heartwarming images of the new Pope – that of the humble priest who chose to live simply, who would kiss and wash the feet of those with AIDS, who would denounce those who refused to honor children born out of wedlock.
For those are also the images I cherish of the Jesuits and those who trained under them, from the courageous Nicaraguan who helped thousands learn to read … to the young Atenista student leader who gave up a comfortable life to work with workers and farmers … to the priest who, with quiet dignity, endured a papal scolding and did not let that stop him from fighting injustice and writing beautiful poetry.
I wrote a short story in the 1980s called ‘Misa,’ about the church at a time when people, including priests and nuns, were being forced to choose between silence and fighting back, safety and solidarity.
To introduce the story, I quoted from a poem:
Give ear to my words, O Lord
Hearken unto my moaning
Pay heed to my protest
For you are not a God friendly to dictators
neither are you a partisan of their politics
Nor are you influenced by their propaganda
Neither are you in league with the gangster.
The poem, titled ‘Psalm 5,’ was based on a Bible passage. It’s one of the most famous poems of Ernesto Cardenal.
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