In the early to mid-1970s, a Jesuit priest began a quiet, indeed almost unknown [at the time] effort, to help political refugees, liberals, and reformers, escape incarceration or liquidation by militarily-dominated South American governments.  During this period, the priest never spoke out against these governments, although one Catholic bishop – Jeronimo Podesta – did so and had been promptly suspended as a priest, never to return to the clergy.  At the same time, this Jesuit priest continued to help many of those persecuted by the government, and various reports put the number of those he helped or saved in excess of a hundred, possibly more, at a time when literally thousands of people vanished, never to be seen again. Much later, in 2000, he was the first prominent Catholic to declare that the Argentine Catholic Church needed to put on “garments of public penance” for its failures during the “Dirty War” of the 1970s. That Jesuit priest, of course, was Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis.

Some of his detractors fault him for not speaking out and taking a public position during the Dirty War.  Others, particularly those he did save, praise him for what he did, noting that he even saved people and made efforts for those with whose political beliefs he did not agree.

Was he a hero, as some say, or did he betray his duty as a priest by not taking a public stance? While likely everyone will have an answer, I’d like to pose the question differently – when is taking a public position useful, even heroic, and when is it a futile and meaningless gesture, one that essentially keeps the individual from doing any good at all?

In a way, to my thinking, what happened in Nazi Germany before WWII offers a useful analogy.  In 1930, speaking out against Hitler and the Nazis might have done some good, especially if more powerful and noteworthy individuals had done so.  By 1940, doing so was suicide, and a suicide that accomplished absolutely nothing.

Father Bergoglio had been ordained as a priest in December 1969, and did not even become a Jesuit until 1973.  He was not that well-known, if known at all outside of a limited circle, and, as a man from a humble background, who had been a janitor and a low-level laboratory technician, he certainly didn’t have powerful friends or influential contacts at that point in his life.  When those few in the church who had position and power, such as Podesta, did speak out, they were silenced, in one way or another.  It would appear that Father Bergoglio did what he could do and did his best to save those that he could.

Was it heroism?  Probably not grand and glorious heroism, but it took great courage and strength of will, because, if he had been discovered, he would likely have vanished as so many others did during that time. And is it heroism, truly, to speak out when it is vain, when by being less obvious, one could save more?  Yet…how does one tell?  And without being in Father Bergoglio’s cassock at the time, how can those who would judge him tell, either?

NOTE:  As one whose beliefs approximate Anglican/Episcopalian agnosticism, I’m trying to offer an open question.


3 thoughts on “Heroism?”

  1. Steve R says:

    I tend to think of any person in this position as a whistle blower. There will be those who like the status quo and condemn the whistle blower’s actions as villainous. Other will praise this person and call them a hero. Edward Snowden fits this profile as what he did was technically wrong (disclosing secrets), but ethically right (exposing vast abuses of surveillance power).

    It’s all too easy to judge in hindsight the results of someone’s actions, but it’s not easily done in the present. I’d suggest that they be considered a hero if their actions had an overall positive effect as did Father Bergoglio. Better to have saved a hundred people quietly, than to speak publicly and not save any. We consider Schindler a hero for quietly saving people, so why shouldn’t that same criteria apply to others?

    Anytime someone risks their life and well-being to help others, they’re certainly a hero to me.

  2. Wine Guy says:

    Heroism comes in all forms: loud, proud, quiet, humble, and unwitting.

    Sometimes being a hero means hunkering down, keeping your mouth shut, and getting the job that needs doing done (pardon the bad grammar).

    In my book, heroes don’t go looking for fame and glory, but sometimes have it thrust upon them. IF they DO go looking for fame and glory, then they’re not heroes, they are adventurers (and sometimes braggarts).

  3. Steve says:

    Pope Francis is a hero for many reasons. First and foremost due to his championing the cause of the poor. Most first world congregants unwillingly give alms. Pope Francis seems to more closely follow the teachings of Matt 19:21. He is only able to do so because he didn’t become a forgotten martyr of the 1970s.

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