A memory of Pope John Paul II

by Jim Forest

Adoldfo Perez Esquivel, Jim Forest and Pope John Paul II

In April 1977, in my first year year as General Secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, we received an urgent phone call from Buenos Aires with the news that Adolfo Perez Esquivel, leader of Argentina’s human right movement Servicio Paz y Justicia, had been kidnapped by the secret police. In that period, when Argentina was being ruled by a military dictatorship, this meant that within a matter of a few days Adolfo was likely to be dead. Those who “disappeared” were rarely seen again.

We responded by calling one of the recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize, Mairead Corrigan in Belfast. We knew she had met Adolfo and greatly respected the movement he led in Latin America. Our proposal was that she immediately nominate Adolfo for the Nobel Peace Prize, a right given to each Nobel recipient. We knew that Adolfo was unlikely to be regarded as a serious candidate for such an honor (at that time the award had been going to people like Henry Kissinger), but our hope was that the nomination would make the Argentinean generals more cautious about Adolfo’s life.

Within an hour Mairead had sent a letter to the Nobel Committee in Oslo proposing Adolfo’s name. The next day both his disappearance and the Nobel nomination were in the world press. Our staff gathered together and sent to the Nobel Committee all that we had on file that might support Adolfo’s nomination though it was, in our minds, entirely a pro forma action.

Our action was successful — Adolfo was not murdered. Though repeatedly tortured, fourteen weeks later he was released — was one of the fortunate 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. Adolfo had survived and had resumed his work — this is all we had hoped for. We had 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 should be given the prize. I was so unprepared for such a decision that I thought at first the call might be a hoax.

On the 10th of December I was with Adolfo and his family for the award ceremony in Oslo. We had been put up in what must have been the city’s most elegant hotel. On the morning of the presentation, we were driven by limousine the few blocks to the aula. It might have taken us longer to arrange ourselves in the car than it would have taken us to walk the short distance to the hall where the award was to be given.

Weeks before the trip to Oslo, Adolfo had phoned from Buenos Aires to ask me to arrange a meeting with Pope John Paul in the days following 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. He assured me there would be no problem. 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 was optimistic. “The Holy Father decides on such matters himself,” he said. He was confident of a positive response. A few days later the Nuncio called with the news that we could meet Pope John Paul for a private audience in the papal throne room on such and such a date — as I recall, it was the 13th of December, but it’s now too long ago for me to be sure.

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 see the remarkable way the pope, as he walked down the center of the aula, repeatedly stopped and listened to people desperately eager to say something to him or receive a blessing. It must have taken half an hour for him to make his way to the front of the hall. As a journalist, I had often watched famous and powerful people encountering crowds, but had never before seen anyone respond with such patient care, indeed with such love, to person after person. 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 the pope 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 announced various pilgrim groups who were present in the hall. Then the pope gave a lecture on marriage, part of a series on this topic. Later these were gathered together and published as a book.

After the audience there were meetings with individual pilgrim groups, beginning with a crowd of people who had physical handicaps. Pope John Paul spent a little time with each person.

These encounters were still going on when the Vatican staff person responsible for us escorted us to the papal throne room located elsewhere in the building. Here we waited for perhaps half an hour. To Adolfo’s dismay, Adolfo’s wife went and sat briefly on the papal throne at the far end of the room. “I am the first woman pope,” she announced, laughing. I have a feeling Pope John Paul would have laughed with her had he found her at this moment.

When the pope at last entered the room he seemed not at all tired from his speech and many meetings. 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.

Adolfo not only wanted 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, but to present to the pope a letter many young Argentineans and Chileans had signed thanking him for his personal efforts to prevent such a war and promising him that, in the event his efforts failed, they would refuse to fight in that war. 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 signed it.

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.” Not simply accepting this as something he might look at later, the pope looked through the album page by page. Meanwhile the conversation with Adolfo continued in Spanish. Adolfo told the pope about his own experience being kidnapped and tortured not many month before 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 through the heart while celebrating Mass. Adolfo urged the pope to appoint the acting archbishop, Arturo Rivera Damas, to become Romero’s successor, putting forward reasons for such an appointment. 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. The pope listened carefully and promised that what Adolfo asked for would be done. (In fact Rivera Damas remained Apostolic Administrator until February 1983.)

The pope had gifts for us — we each received a silver rosary. We had a gift for him as well, a copy of my biography of Thomas Merton, which had recently been published. Merton’s writings had been an important influence in Adolfo’s life. It seemed to Adolfo this would be the perfect gift for us to leave with Pope John Paul. 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. Pope 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 the publisher of his own writings 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 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 — a lesson in how even the pope’s example sometimes had little influence on his own curia.

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 we should go, even without an appointment, and seek a meeting on the spot. After all, the picture of our meeting with Pope John Paul was on the front page of Rome’s newspapers. If Pope John Paul would meet us, surely a cardinal would.

We had a good friend on the cardinal’s staff. Once we arrived at the palace where the Commission was located, we asked the receptionist to contact our friend. 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 cafe. Meeting again at the café, he explained that the Argentinean hierarchy had more influence in his department than the pope.

That was disappointing — and a lesson in curial realities. But what overshadows all other memories of our days in Rome was the meeting with Pope John Paul, who turned out to be a very attentive listener and not simply a famous man appearing for a photo opportunity.

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Jim Forest
Kanisstraat 5 / 1811 GJ Alkmaar / The Netherlands
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/collections/
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