John Paul II

Assessing His Legacy

In April 1977, as general secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, I received an urgent phone call from Buenos Aires with the news that Adolfo Perez Esquivel, leader of Argentina’s human-rights movement Servicio Paz y Justicia, had been kidnapped by the secret police. Argentina was then ruled by a military dictatorship, and those who “disappeared” were rarely heard from or seen again.

I quickly called Nobel Peace Prize recipient Mairead Corrigan in Belfast. She had met Perez Esquival and respected his work greatly. I suggested that she immediately nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize—a right given to each Nobel recipient. We knew that Perez Esquival was unlikely to be regarded as a serious candidate for such an honor, but our hope was that the nomination would make the Argentinean generals cautious about his life. Within an hour Corrigan had sent a letter to the Nobel Committee in Oslo proposing Perez Esquival’s name. The next day, both his disappearance and the Nobel nomination were in the world press.

It took fourteen months, but our action was successful. In 1978, Perez Esquival was finally freed. Though repeatedly tortured, he was one of the few desaparecidos to return alive from Argentina’s secret prisons. Following his release, we thought no more about his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. He had survived and resumed his work—this was all we had hoped for. But then, in the late summer of 1980, the phone rang—a call from Oslo—with news that Perez Esquival would be awarded the prize.

On December 10, I was with Perez Esquival and his family for the award ceremony in Oslo. Weeks before, he had phoned asking me to try to arrange a meeting with Pope John Paul II following the Nobel ceremony. I called the papal nuncio in The Hague. The nuncio assured me there would be no problem. I warned him that the Argentinean hierarchy, so compromised by its association with the military junta, was likely to do all it could to block such a meeting, but the nuncio was optimistic. He said the Holy Father would decide on the matter himself, and was confident of a positive response. A few days later, the nuncio called with news that the pope would receive us for a private audience. As I recall, the date was set for December 13.

Before the private audience took place, we were invited to attend the pope’s weekly public audience in the Aula Paolo VI, a large hall close to St. Peter’s Basilica. We were given places in the press gallery and observed the pope as he walked down the center of the aula, repeatedly stopping to listen to people desperately eager to say something to him or receive a blessing. It must have taken him half an hour to make his way to the front of the hall. As a journalist, I had often watched famous people encountering crowds, but never before had I seen someone respond with such patient care and inexhaustible energy.

After the general audience, which consisted of a lecture followed by meetings with individual pilgrim groups, including the physically handicapped, we were escorted to another meeting room. We waited there another half hour. When the pope finally entered the room, he seemed not at all tired from his speech and meetings. We immediately got down to business. For Perez Esquival, this was not merely an opportunity to meet the pope and receive a blessing. He had an agenda.

First, he thanked John Paul for his efforts to prevent a war between Argentina and Chile, a real possibility at the time. He presented the pope with a letter signed by both young Argentineans and Chileans thanking the pope for his efforts and promising him that, in the event his efforts failed, they would refuse to fight in the war. John Paul looked carefully at the letter and the pages of signatures, and—speaking in Spanish—expressed his gratitude for the courage of those who had signed it.

Next, Perez Esquival gave John Paul a large album of photos, with explanatory text, of people who had been kidnapped in Argentina and never seen alive again. Not simply accepting this as something he might scan later, the pope looked through the album page by page. Meanwhile, the conversation continued in Spanish. Perez Equival told the pope about his own experience being kidnapped and tortured, and expressed his sadness that the Argentinean hierarchy had been silent about the crimes committed by the junta.

A third item on the agenda concerned the church in El Salvador. Earlier in the year, Archbishop Oscar Romero had been shot while celebrating Mass. Perez Esquival urged the pope to appoint the acting bishop in San Salvador, Arturo Rivera y Damas, as Romero’s successor. Nearly three years later the appointment was announced.

Then the pope had gifts for us—we each received a silver rosary. We had a gift for him as well, a copy of my recent biography of Thomas Merton. Merton’s writings had been an important influence on Perez Equival’s life, and he thought the book would be the perfect gift for the pope. This was the one moment in the audience when I had a brief exchange with John Paul. Switching from Spanish to English, the pope asked if I had known Merton. Yes, I responded, he had been my spiritual father the last seven years of his life. John Paul said he too was a great admirer of Merton’s writings. A close friend, the publisher of his own writings in Poland, was also the publisher of many of Merton’s books in Polish. He had read them all, he said, and still had them in his library. He looked through the book, pausing over various photos.

At this point, a bishop who had been standing behind the pope throughout the audience reminded him that our audience had taken considerably longer than had been scheduled. The pope apologized, gave us a final blessing, and left for his next appointment. There is one other detail on the story worth including here. In the weeks before the trip to Rome, I had tried but failed to arrange a meeting with the cardinal who headed the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace. The morning following our papal audience, Perez Esquival decided we should go, even without an appointment, and seek a meeting. After all, a picture of our meeting with the pope was on the front page of Rome’s newspapers.

We had a good friend on the cardinal’s staff, and once we arrived at the Commission office, we asked the receptionist to contact our friend. A few minutes later, he appeared in a panic. “Please leave immediately,” he implored. “The cardinal refuses to see you and does not want you in the building.” He said he would meet us in fifteen minutes at a nearby café. At the café, he explained that the Argentinean hierarchy had more influence in his department than the pope. It was a disappointing lesson in curial realities.

Still, what overshadows all other memories of those days in Rome was our meeting with Pope John Paul II. He turned out to be a very attentive listener.

 


Click here for other reflections on the papacy of John Paul II.

Published in the 2005-04-22 issue: 

Jim Forest heads the Orthodox Peace Fellowship from his home in Alkmaar, the Netherlands. His most recent book is The Wormwood File: E-Mail from Hell (Orbis).

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