A Pope from Argentina

Pope Francis and Genevieve JosephPope Francis and Genevieve JosephBy Genevieve Josephe

Up to 30,000 people were abducted and disappeared during the military dictatorship in Argentina between 1976 and 1983, the pe­riod of the so-called "Dirty War." Many were imprisoned, tortured, or even pushed alive out of planes over rivers and the ocean in so-called "death flights." Victims included members of activist groups, trade unionists, students, people who exposed govern­ment corruption, and persons thought to hold left-wing views. Children born to prisoners during this period were sometimes taken and given to members of the military (the "children of the disappeared.") For three decades the Mothers and Grandmoth­ers of the Plaza de Mayo have been demanding the return of the children, estimated to number as many as 500. About 100 have been found so far.

Little sister Genevieve-Josephe is the niece of one of two French nuns who were abducted and murdered while working in Argentina during that period. She herself has lived for many years among carnival workers in Rome, first at Luna Park, and now in Parco Lido de Ostia.

In 2005 I had gone to Argentina with my brother and my cousin for the burial of my aunt Leonie Duquet. Leonie was one of two sisters who disappeared in 1977, tortured at Esma and thrown into the sea from a plane. (Esma is the now infamous "Navy Engineering School," where some 3,000 detainees are said to have been killed.) Some bodies had washed back up onto beaches and were buried in common graves. Under President Kirchner, Argentina had begun a process of uncovering the truth about its past. Several skeletons had been identified by means of DNA testing, including my Aunt Leonie.

I came back from my trip quite shaken. I had not realized until then the scope of the trauma which Argentina had under­gone: up to 30,000 "disappeared," an entire generation. At that moment I wrote to Cardinal Bergoglio, then archbishop of Buenos Aires, who was in Rome for the annual Bishops' Synod. I was as­tonished when he phoned me that same night. I was impressed by his humility.

Since that time, I have been involved with the human rights group of the Argentinian Embassy in Rome. I was able to return to Buenos Aires on two occasions, in 2010 and 2011, for the trials of Esma military personnel. The first trip was paid for by the human rights section of the Argentinian government, and the second by Miriam Lewin and her friends (she had also been imprisoned at Esma.) I was able to visit sites connected with past events, experience the suffering and struggle for truth and justice on the part of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, that of the Grandmothers searching for their lost grandchildren, of those who have been found, and of the families and ex-detainees. There was a deep wound vis-a-vis the Church, because a certain number of Bishops had been in league with the dictatorship. Still, I was struck by these people's hope for a better world.

So, on March 13, when I heard that Cardinal Bergoglio had become Pope, all that came back to me... I was very moved when he told the journalists, "How I wish for a poor Church, close to the poor." Leonie and so many others had given their lives for that.

Thanks to some family friends who are also friends of Don Alfred, the pope's secretary, we were invited with them to the pa­pal Mass at Santa Marta. After the Mass, Pope Francis greeted each person in attendance. Of course I spoke to him about Le- onie. L.Sr. Anna Amelia and I invited him to Parco Lido de Ostia, and I assured him that all our friends were praying for him. We were impressed by his simplicity, and the way he insisted we pray for him and for the Church... that was Saturday, April 20...

During that time Estela Carlotto (president of the Grand­mothers of the Plaza de Mayo), Buscarita (another Grandmother), and Juan Cabandie (one of the grandchildren who have been "found"), also came to Rome. The Argentine Ambassador to the Holy See had requested tickets for them and for me for the audi­ence of April 24, so we could greet Pope Francis. At the end of the audience he came to us right away, and had a nice encounter with Estela and the whole group. He promised Estela he would help with their search for the missing. And he hugged us all very warmly. This meeting was very important, a positive sign for all the families of the "disappeared," balm for our hearts. We were so moved and happy. Of course the whole encounter was broadcast immediately by radio and television here in Italy and in Argentina.

Yes, we are living a beautiful moment in the Church's history, 50 years after the Vatican Council. How we have to pray, and try to live the Gospel in simplicity in ordinary daily life.