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Chile honors memory of cardinal who opposed Pinochet

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Santiago, Chile

Flags flew at half staff for five days here, and radio and television programming assumed muted tones. Tens of thousands of Chileans waved white handkerchiefs, flew balloons and carpeted avenues with flowers and confetti in an emotional farewell to Cardinal Raúl Silva Henriquez, a vigorous opponent of human rights violations during the 17-year dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte.

Silva died April 9 at age 91. At his funeral, held three days later, Archbishop Francisco Javier Errázuriz Ossa read Silva’s “spiritual testament” in which he expressed his love for God, the church, Chile, the poor and “campesinos who labor with sweat on their brow,” young people, brother bishops, priests and lay people. He urged every citizen to “give his or her best so that Chile never loses its vocation of justice and liberty.”

“Don Raúl,” as the cardinal was affectionately known, headed the Santiago archdiocese from 1961 to 1983.

During this time, Silva courageously defended the rights of the poor and persecuted and launched visionary initiatives for social reform and pastoral renewal. He will be remembered as the greatest figure in Chilean church history. In his final statement, he called for “all possible and impossible efforts to eradicate poverty in Chile,” adding, “the poor have ennobled me with their love.”

For many, the cardinal’s death is a sad reminder of the church’s retreat into conservatism and its abandonment of the prophetic style that marked the years of Silva’s leadership. In contrast to the vigorous applause that greeted the reading of Silva’s statement at the funeral, a message of condolence from the pope drew silence.

Silva, a Salesian, was ordained in 1938. Pope John XXIII named him bishop of Valparaiso in 1957 and archbishop of Santiago in 1961.

Church land for the landless

In Santiago, the new archbishop lost no time in introducing radical changes. Five years before the Chilean agrarian reform was launched by the Christian Democratic government of Eduardo Frei Montalva, Silva joined Talca bishop Manuel Larrain, a founder of the Latin American Bishops’ Conference, in proposing to turn the church’s estates over to landless farm workers.

Silva’s closest advisers opposed the idea, so he went to Rome and set the plan before Pope John XXIII. His memoirs relate that when he finished Pope John winked at him: “Go ahead,” he said. “I’ll back you up.”

The Santiago archdiocese ceded 1500 hectares (3,700 acres) to peasant families to be worked cooperatively.

“This was not a political gesture but a prophetic one,” said Hugo Trivelli, Frei’s Minister of Agriculture. It also marked the church as the initiator of Chile’s agrarian reform process.

Silva launched a series of bold pastoral initiatives, many of which anticipated reforms soon to be proposed by the Second Vatican Council. Arguing that most Chilean Catholics were alienated from the church and needed to be “re-Christianized,” he petitioned Rome for permission to use Spanish in the liturgy -- a practice that was virtually unknown at that time.

Joining forces with other prelates, he persuaded the bishops’ conference to launch a major pastoral venture called the “Gran Mision de Chile,” which promoted lay participation and encouraged innovative programs such as family-based catechetical instruction, team ministries and base communities. A short-lived experiment emptied the Santiago seminary and sent students out to live and work in poor neighborhoods.

Following Vatican II, Silva encouraged the election of lay representatives to debate the council’s implementation. He responded positively to growing ferment among younger Catholics, supporting student demands in a 1967 uprising at the Catholic University.

However, when the Young Church (Iglesia Juven), a group of 200 radicalized Catholics impatient with the pace of change, took over the Santiago cathedral in 1968, Silva responded by excommunicating them all. (The sanction was lifted two days later, after a long conversation with the movement’s leaders.)

Christian Democratic connections

Silva was close to the Christian Democrats and enjoyed a lifelong friendship with Eduardo Frei Montalva, who was president from 1964 to 1970. He never sympathized with efforts to reconcile Christianity and Marxism and had serious conflict with the Christians for Socialism group that formed in 1972, largely made up of Chilean and foreign priests.

Silva’s broad historical vision transcended any partisan loyalty. Shortly after Marxist president Salvador Allende was inaugurated in 1970, the cardinal presented him with a Bible. “I’d like to give you this, Mr. President, but I don’t know whether you’ll accept it,” he said.

“Of course I will,” quipped Allende. “Why, this is the story of history’s first revolutionary!”

Silva’s relationship with Allende became one of friendship and trust. In 1973, when the democratic socialist experiment was in serious trouble, Allende turned to Don Raúl for help. Silva did all he could to build understanding between Christian Democratic leaders and the Allende government; but ultimately his efforts failed. On occasion he reprimanded the Christian Democrats for what he perceived as their stubborn refusal to collaborate with Allende.

Against the advice of associates, Silva addressed rallies organized by slum dwellers and May Day gatherings of union federations, in no way deterred if they happened to be presided over by communists. His presence was often greeted by the chant, “Raúl, amigo, el pueblo estan contigo” (“Raúl, our friend, the people are always with you.”) His deep feeling for the dispossessed was palpable on these occasions, and often he was moved to tears.

The Pinochet years

Despite the cardinal’s efforts, the military staged a bloody coup in 1973. A few days later, the cardinal visited Santiago’s National Stadium, where thousands of activists and Allende sympathizers were being held and many were under interrogation and torture. He addressed the prisoners, urging them to have faith, and visited every gallery.

Within weeks, church committees had been set up to aid victims of repression and their families. An ecumenical body, the Committee for Peace -- COPACHI -- was set up by early 1974. Silva supported the committee’s work and obtained funding to expand its programs.

COPACHI’s services included a wide range of social projects such as economic self-help enterprises, farm co-ops and health clinics in poor neighborhoods. Hundreds of soup kitchens were created, providing daily lunches for more than 30,000 needy children.

COPACHI’s staff grew to more than 300 full-time lawyers, social workers and medical personnel. It gathered detailed information on arrests, disappearances, and torture; years later, some of this material was used by Spanish Judge Baltazar Garzon in compiling the extradition requests that led to Pinochet’s arrest in London.

COPACHI was subject to growing harassment by Pinochet’s police. In November 1975, 18 staffers were arrested. Pinochet insisted that the cardinal close the organization down.

“We can close COPACHI, Mr. President, but we can never abandon our duty,” Silva replied. “If you want to stop us you’ll have to come looking for these people in my own house: I’ll hide them under the bed if needs be.”

The cardinal finally bowed to Pinochet’s demand. COPACHI was dissolved Dec. 31, 1975. But the following day, January 1, 1976, the cardinal created a new department of the Santiago archdiocese, the Vicariate of Solidarity, housing it on Santiago’s main plaza adjacent to the cathedral and offering the same services with virtually the same personnel. Its position as a Roman Catholic church agency made the vicariate less vulnerable to government attacks.

By 1980, working through regional offices, the vicariate had provided legal, medical and social services to more than 700,000 persons. It also gained a reputation as a kind of shadow government by serving as an informal meeting place for organizations such as the Families of the Disappeared. The vicariate continued to operate for the remainder of the dictatorship and into the early years of the elected government that took over in 1990.

Silva was frequently attacked in the press. In 1974 Col. Manuel Contreras, head of the dreaded DINA -- the political police -- personally threatened the cardinal. But despite frequent confrontations with Pinochet, Silva never backed down in his defense of the poor and the persecuted.

The church was changing, however. The election of John Paul II in 1978 ushered in an era of conservative episcopal appointments. In accordance with church norms, the still-vigorous cardinal presented his resignation as archbishop when he turned 75. Close friends have confided that its prompt acceptance by Rome came as a devastating personal blow; Silva stepped down in May 1983.

Few who knew the cardinal will forget his penetrating gaze or his gift for friendship: he relished good food, good wine and spirited table repartee.

Emblematic were his straw hat and rustic poncho -- and in later life, his sturdy walking stick.

Silva’s successors have been more conservative in style and theology but have continued to see the defense of human rights as integral to their pastoral responsibilities. In this, and in the hearts of many Chileans, Don Raúl’s legacy lives on.

National Catholic Reporter, April 23, 1999