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The first time I met Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns was in the mid-1980s at a Catholic Press Association Convention. I remember going off for a private conversation. During the exchange he pulled an envelope from his bag that contained a letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It was correspondence, if I recall correctly, having to do with the silencing of Franciscan Fr. Leonardo Boff, a Brazilian liberation theologian and friend of Arns.

“For 21 years, I worked for the right to free expression,” he said, referring to the work he had done to maintain communication throughout his diocese during a period of brutal dictatorship (1964-1985) in Brazil. “And now my brothers in Rome are doing this.”

Boff -- whose work, in other circumstances, might have generated a healthy debate among the theological community -- eventually left the priesthood, another statistic in this papacy’s campaign against thinkers it doesn’t like.

I discovered, quite by accident, how vile and mean-spirited the “brothers in Rome” could be during a visit more than a dozen years ago. I happened to get an appointment, off the record, with a young priest who was working at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the time. I was with another journalist, and we met in a little room somewhere in the congregation compound. The other reporter asked a question about Brazilian Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga, and that question evoked a torrent of invective and vicious language.

Arns’ name was thrown into the stew of this nasty monologue, during which the young priest labeled such bishops as “ignorant little men” who were “naive.”

Rest assured, Arns is neither ignorant nor naive. He is gracious to a fault, and can look back on a life of considerable courage. He didn’t take the easy or safe way out during the period of a crushing dictatorship. He was in and out of prisons, attempting to keep track of and minister to those considered enemies of the government. He was active in aiding the small communities that developed in his diocese to counter the effects of the dictatorship. He gave the cardinal’s mansion over to the poor, and he worked tirelessly on behalf of those on the margins. Journalists from outside Brazil would talk about seeing him riding city buses and working at fostering the base communities that became a hallmark of the São Paulo archdiocese before Rome carved up the archdiocese in 1989.

Arns has a keen sense of the value of historical record. Immediately after World War II, Arns studied in Paris where many of his classmates had lived through the Nazi terror. One friend allowed him to read a notebook “with the record of everything that had gone on in there.”

Years later, Arns would be instrumental in compiling a record of the deeds of the military regime in Brazil. It makes an enormous contribution to the field of human rights, since the book, Brasil Nunca Mais! (Brazil Never Again!) preserves the details of more than 1,800 reports of torture by the Brazilian military, with the names of the victims and their torturers.

A small team of lawyers secretly copied the transcripts of military court proceedings, which, for some unknown reason, the dictatorship not only made but kept. Arns and others arranged to have them smuggled out of the country so they would not be destroyed.

Arns’ life presents an example of what church can be, even at the highest levels of leadership. His life of relentless service to the gospels may seem, to some, naive. You can take the measure of this wonderful man yourself. His Lenten reflections begin on Page 12.

The series of reflections is printed so that all readers -- even given the vicissitudes of the U.S. Postal Service -- should receive the segments at least a week early so they can be used for study or prayer groups who might wish to do so. Extra copies will be printed and available for sale. Anyone interested in additional copies should contact Jo Ann Schierhoff at extension 2239 or e-mail to ncrsub@natcath.org

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, February 28, 2003