A memory of Adolfo Perez Esquivel and Pope John Paul II

by Jim Forest

Adoldfo Perez Esquivel, Jim Forest and Pope John Paul II

One of the people who became important in my life once I joined the staff of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation in 1977 was Adolfo Perez Esquivel. From his office in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Adolfo led Servicio Paz y Justicia (Service for Justice and Peace), a continental network whose beginnings had much to do with the work of Hildegard and Jean Goss-Mayr, IFOR’s traveling secretaries.

On the 5th of April, 1977, we received a frantic call from his wife, Amanda: “Adolfo has been arrested!” In that period, when Argentina was being ruled by a military dictatorship, this meant that within a matter of days Adolfo was likely to be dead. He would become another of the disappeared — a disaparecido — like thousands of other dissidents who had been targeted by the Argentine military junta.

What could we do that might prevent Adolfo being murdered? The idea we came up with was to arrange Adolfo’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize and get reports of his nomination into the world press. Such a proposal could be formally initiated by former recipients of the prize. I had gotten to know two of them, Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams, founders of the Peace People movement, during my most recent trip to Belfast. They had also met Adolfo and were impressed with the work of Servicio. I phoned them and we worked together on a nomination letter and then on press releases both from IFOR and Peace People. Within hours the news of Adolfo’s Nobel nomination was making its way into print in hundreds of newspapers. We knew there was only the slightest chance of Adolfo receiving the award — he was little known outside Latin America — but hoped the Argentine generals would be made more cautious about Adolfo’s life. And they were. Though he was repeatedly beaten and tortured, he wasn’t executed. It took fourteen months of campaigning and appeals from several governments and such non-governmental groups as Amnesty International, but finally Adolfo was released.

IFOR staff prepared a dossier for the Nobel committee about Adolfo’s life and work, his writings and interviews with him, but regarded it as a pro forma exercise. Following his release, we gave little further thought to his Nobel nomination. Adolfo had survived and had resumed his work — this is all we had hoped for. Adolfo himself was our prize. But then in the late summer the phone rang — a call from Oslo with the news, shortly to be made public, that the committee had decided that Adolfo had been chosen. I thought at first the call might be a hoax.

On the 10th of December, along with Hildegard and Jean Goss-Mayr, I was in Oslo with Adolfo and his family for the award ceremony. We had been put up in what must have been the city’s most prestigious hotel. On the morning of the presentation, we were driven by limousine the few blocks to the aula.

Describing himself as “a small voice for those who have no voice,” in his acceptance speech Adolfo said: “I am convinced that the gospel power of nonviolence presents a choice that opens up for us a challenge of new and radical perspectives. It is an option which gives priority to the essential Christian value: the dignity of the human being; the sacred, transcendent and irrevocable dignity that belongs to the human being by reason of being a child of God and a brother or sister in Christ, and therefore, our own brother and sister.” I was impressed by his emphasis on the contemplative foundation that is needed for peace work to be constructive. “For me it is essential to have the inner peace and serenity of prayer in order to listen to the silence of God, which speaks to us in our personal life and the history of our times, of the power of love.”

Weeks before the trip to Oslo, Adolfo had phoned from Buenos Aires to ask me to arrange a meeting with Pope John Paul soon after the Nobel ceremony. I called the Papal Nuncio in The Hague and explained to him Adolfo’s hope that there might be such a meeting. I warned him that the Argentinean hierarchy, so compromised in its association with the military junta, was likely to do all in its power to block such a meeting, but the nuncio assured me there would be no problem. “The Holy Father decides on such matters himself,” he said, “and my request will go directly to his desk.” A few days later the Nuncio called with the news that we could meet John Paul for a private audience on the 13th of December.

Before the private audience there was 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, which meant having an opportunity to watch from above the pope walk down the aula’s central aisle, repeatedly stopping and listening to people desperate to say something to him or receive a blessing. It took half an hour for him to make his way to the front of the hall. As a journalist, I had often watched famous people encountering crowds, but had never before seen anyone respond with such attentive care to so many people. It was astonishing. Pope John Paul’s impressed me as a man of inexhaustible energy. It was easy to imagine that he had been a mountain climber earlier in his life.

Finally John Paul reached his throne in the front of the hall. Behind it was a large modern sculpture representing Christ’s resurrection. Once the pope was seated, the master of ceremonies introduced various pilgrim groups present in the hall. Then the pope gave a lecture on marriage, part of a series on this topic. After the general audience there were brief meetings with individual pilgrim groups, beginning with a crowd of people, mainly in wheel chairs, who had significant physical handicaps.

These encounters were still going on when the Vatican staff person responsible for us escorted us to the papal throne room elsewhere in the same building. To Adolfo’s dismay, his wife Amanda went and sat briefly on the quite plain papal throne at the far end of the room. “I am the first woman pope,” she announced, laughing.

When John Paul at last entered the room, we immediately got down to business. For Adolfo this was not simply an opportunity to meet the pope and receive a blessing. He had a definite agenda: first to thank John Paul for his efforts to prevent a war between Argentina and Chile, an event that was far from unlikely at the time, and to present a letter signed by many young Argentineans and Chileans promising him that, in the event his efforts failed, they would refuse to fight. John Paul looked carefully at the letter and the many pages of signatures, and — speaking in Spanish — expressed his gratitude for the courage of those who had made such a commitment.

Next Adolfo gave the pope a large album of photos, with explanatory text, of people who had been kidnapped in Argentina and never seen alive again — the desaparecidos. John Paul looked through the album page by page while the conversation with Adolfo continued. Adolfo told the pope about his own experience being kidnapped and tortured and expressed his grief that the Argentinean hierarchy had been silent about the crimes committed by the junta.

A fourth item on the agenda concerned the Church in El Salvador. Earlier in the year Archbishop Oscar Romero had been assassinated while celebrating Mass. Adolfo urged the pope to appoint the acting archbishop, Arturo Rivera Damas, to become Romero’s successor. This was a controversial proposal. There were many in El Salvador’s power structure who wanted a bishop who would bless their activities, not condemn them, as Romero had done. The pope listened carefully and promised that what Adolfo asked for would be done. (Rivera Damas was later appointed Archbishop of San Salvador.)

The pope had gifts for us. We each received a silver rosary. Adolfo had a gift for him as well, a copy of my biography of Thomas Merton, which had recently been published. Merton’s writings, Adolfo told John Paul, had been a major influence in shaping his faith and vocation.

This was the one moment in the audience when I had a brief exchange with the pope. Adolfo had introduced me as the book’s author. John Paul, switching from Spanish to English, asked me if I had known Merton. “Yes,” I responded, “he had been my spiritual father during the last seven years of his life.” John Paul said he too was a great admirer of Merton’s writings. A close friend of his, he said, was both the publisher of his own books in Poland and also the publisher of Polish translations of many of Merton’s books. He had read them all, he said, and still had them in his library. He looked through my 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 Rome visit worth recalling.

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, Adolfo decided that, even without an appointment, we should go and seek a dialogue on the spot. After all, pictures of our meeting with John Paul were on the front page of Rome’s newspapers. If the pope would meet us, surely a cardinal would.

We had a good friend on the cardinal’s staff. Once we arrived at the Commission offices, we asked the receptionist to contact him. A few minutes later he appeared, obviously in panic. “Please leave immediately,” he begged. “The cardinal refuses to see you and does not want you in the building. If you don’t leave, I will be fired and never have a job again in the Vatican civil service.” He said he would meet us in fifteen minutes at a certain nearby café. Once there he explained that the Argentinean hierarchy had more influence in his department than the pope. It was a lesson in Vatican realities. Even the pope’s example sometimes has little influence on his own curia.

* * *
Jim Forest
e-mail: [email protected]
Orthodox Peace Fellowship web site: http://www.incommunion.org
Jim & Nancy Forest web site: http://www.jimandnancyforest.com
photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jimforest/
* * *