Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The pope, the archbishop and the queen consort

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19 Mar 2013 | Tony Leon  | Original Publication:  BDlive
There is a fantastic disconnect in Argentina between its human capital and its broken politics, writes Tony Leon

ACCORDING to Woody Allen, 80% of life is about showing up. I can prove the wisdom of this observation: about two years ago in Buenos Aires, more out of a sense of duty than expectation, I attended a reception hosted by the Papal Nuncio — the Vatican’s ambassador to Argentina — at his palatial residence. The Nuncio is also the dean of the Buenos Aires diplomatic corps, and so was one of my then bosses. I shook hands and exchanged mumbled pleasantries — the essential code of most ambassadorial interactions — with Jorge Bergoglio, the cardinal of Buenos Aires, little realising that I was greeting the next pope and the new global head of 1.2-billion Catholics.

I suppose that outside of a few local princes of the church and diplomats, I was, until last Wednesday, probably one of a handful of South Africans to have met or even heard of a man who, in less than a week, as the new Vicar of Christ, is now one of the most recognisable people on the planet. Our own Cardinal Wilfrid Napier’s remarks on paedophiliac priests are not going to make the new pope’s job any easier.

Piers Morgan tweeted on the pope’s election that Argentina had now produced the world’s number one footballer (Lionel Messi) and the world’s number one Catholic, to which list he could have added Princess Maxima, who next month will be installed as queen consort of the Netherlands, when her husband is crowned King William. At the risk of irritating readers by referring to this column of a fortnight ago, there is a fantastic disconnect in Argentina between its human capital and its broken politics: something that has a little local resonance as well.

On the subject of bad politics and good people, the news of Bergoglio’s election as Pope Francis was probably as well received by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner as the selection of Archbishop Desmond Tutu as head of the Anglican Church in South Africa was greeted by then president PW Botha in September 1986. Both men — the one the first non-European to lead the Church of Rome and the other the first black man to lead the Church of the Province in South Africa — were well-known opponents and arch-critics of their national presidents. "Speaking truth to power" is no local phenomenon and power, universally and usually, does not like being spoken to in critical terms.

But there is a further link between Pope Francis, Tutu and, in fact, with Princess Maxima. Within hours of the new pope’s election last week, questions appeared about his precise role in the notorious 'Dirty War,' which the Argentinian military junta prosecuted against its own citizens in six baleful and bloody years between 1976 and 1983.

The unfathomable evil of this period is difficult to express; suffice to say that the Argentinian state-sponsored killing and torture machine "removed", usually on death flights over the River Plate, anywhere between 9,000 and 30,000 desaparecidos (literally "the disappeared"). They ranged from schoolchildren to parish priests.

It was the disappearance during this period of priests Franz Jalics and Orlando Yorio, activists among the slum-dwellers of Buenos Aires, who were severely tortured and detained, but survived, that has shone a light afresh on the role of the church during this terrible time, and Bergoglio, who then headed the Jesuit order, to which one of the priests belonged.

The formula that confronts all spiritual men in times of moral turbulence — "what did he know, what did he do and was he complicit?" — has been asked of the new pontiff. The Vatican has strenuously denied any act of commission or omission by Pope Francis at the time, and he certainly, with sincere humility, has been, in recent times, a voice for the poorest and most marginalised of his flock: hence his estrangement from his country’s president.

No such ambiguity surrounds the family of the new queen consort of the Netherlands. The Dutch have put out the "not welcome" sign to Princess Maxima’s parents, who will not attend next month’s coronation. Her father, Jorge Zorreguieta, served in the high echelons of the regime of the military junta. As minister of agriculture, he claimed "to have been unaware" of the atrocities his government committed.

The literally unburied past in Argentina points in a homeward direction. I often think that we overstate some of the achievements of our constitution-making process and crown the messy and often violent nature of our transition to democracy with a sort of gauzy, often misplaced, halo.

Despite the several things we got wrong, one of the things we got right was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, presided over by Tutu. For all its imperfections, unevenness and even incompleteness, the commission’s presence in our midst, and its glaring absence in a place like Argentina, helped move us forward a little. And in a very imperfect world, that counts for a lot.
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