Shut Up and Listen!

One Man's Quest for Absolute Silence

Silence of the Shepherd

The new pope kept mum about official torture and murder in 1970s Argentina

In researching a book on the nature of silence I visited the abbey of Citeaux, in central France. It was there the Benedictine order, from which the silent Trappists came, was founded. Citeaux today is a peaceful clutch of white stone buildings, some dating from the 13th century, in which a few dozen monks live and work in near-total quiet. I was impressed by the silence there, and the calm that characterized how the monks went about their daily prayers and their labor in fields and workshops. I got a sense that if one truly wished to listen to rhythms greater than one's own consciousness: rhythms of god, of trees and fields, of one's deepest nature; practicing a discipline of silence in such a setting was a good way to go about it. The silence of religion, in this case, bore sweet fruit. 

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But the Catholic church also practices a different kind of silence. This kind is violent, vicious, and lethal. It characterizes how the archdioceses of America and Ireland in particular have dealt with the fact that their priests, for decades, sexually abused hundreds if not thousands of innocent children. The cardinals of Boston, of New York, together with the Roman curia and Pope Benedict XVI himself—a former Hitler youth who should have known what damage a bureaucracy bent on secrecy can do—planned and carried out a conspiracy of silence to shield guilty priests from prosecution, to disguise their crimes, to hide the harm they did behind a rood screen of silence. They did this for the worst of reasons: to protect their own power and prestige. 

Benedict has retired, and the cardinals have elected Francis I in his place. It is not surprising that the new pontiff, a native Argentine, is just as conservative, as compromised by the conspiracy of silence concerning child abuse, as the cardinals who elected him. What is even more shocking, however, is that Francis I, a.k.a. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was complicit in another conspiracy of silence, one even more violent and deadly than the child abuse scandal.

As archbishop of Buenos Aires during the "Dirty War" in the 1970s, Bergoglio refused to criticize the Argentine military junta for the kidnapping, torture and murder of some 30,000 men, women and children whose only crime, for the most part, was opposing the dictatorship. (A tiny minority, for the record, were leftist guerrillas.) The junta--committed Catholics themselves--sent soldiers to snatch high school students off the streets of Buenos Aires, imprison them in the Naval Mechanics School, rape and torture them without mercy. Afterwards they usually shot their prisoners, or took them up in military helicopters bound and gagged, and pushed them out the door at high altitude to fall into the South Atlantic. They fell silently, one imagines, like shot quail.

It seems Bergoglio—now Francis I, good shepherd to the faithful—might not have stayed silent in the passive sense, by refusing to condemn the campaign of murder, rape, torture and terror the generals waged against their own people. According to a book by Horacio Verbitsky, the archbishop may have actively condoned the kidnapping and torture of two Jesuit priests opposed to the junta. (The priests survived to accuse him; Bergoglio denied the charge.) And a report by the foreign correspondent of Britain's Guardian newspaper in 2011 claims Bergoglio, covering up for the Argentine Navy, allowed political prisoners from the Naval Mechanics School to be locked away in the former summer residence of church officials, to hide them during the 1979 visit of a delegation from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission to the School.

The name of that residence? El Silencio: The Silence.

 

George Michelsen Foy, a novelist and journalist, teaches creative writing at NYU. His latest book, Zero Decibels: The Quest for Silence, is published by Scribner.

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