Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Argentina

Almost immediately upon his election as Pope Francis, accusations and speculation arose about the role Jorge Mario Bergoglio played during the 1976-1983 “Dirty War” in Argentina. For those too young to remember, in 1976 a military junta overthrew the Argentine government and seized control, initiating a period of officially-sanctioned terrorism during which thousands of people “disappeared,” most of whom were tortured and many of whom were killed. Some charged that Bergoglio was complicit in the dirty war; others complained that he did not publicly denounce what was going on.

Those accusations and speculations prompted international reporter and legal journalist Nello Scavo to begin an investigation of his own. The result of his investigation is his book, Bergoglio’s List. Originally published only in Italian, the book has recently been translated into English, and I was sent an copy for review by Saint Benedict’s Press.

The subtitle of the book – How a Young Francis Defied a Dictatorship and Saved Dozens of Lives dispenses with any suspense about the result of Scavo’s investigation. He found “documents and testimony that excluded any complicity with the regime; on the contrary, they clearly demonstrate how [Bergoglio] helped those who were persecuted by the junta.” His actions directly and indirectly saved many. Scavo’s further investigations led him to a number of people who, albeit reluctantly, shared their stories about how “Father Jorge” saved their lives. A number of those stories are told in the book.

The individual stories are powerful and the descriptions of this period in Argentina’s history horrific. But I also appreciated the pictures of the younger version of this Pope revealed by those who spoke to Scavo. Some reveal his sense of humor: Fr. Jorge, several years after protecting three seminarians, came for their ordination and led them in the spiritual exercises. On a terribly hot day, when the three decided to jump into the river to cool off, Bergoglio put on his swim suit, got into the water and gave them the retreat in the stream.

Others reveal his deep commitment to the poor. One person shared a memory of a time

Jorge came into my hovel made of sheet metal and earthen floor. He stopped in for a few days for spiritual retreat. During those moments, you could tell he was not the type of person to just chat about theology cooling off with a fan. He was a man with a mission. He listened to the poor and watched them in their misery and their impulses. He immersed himself in their world and in their suffering. He went down into the depths of their hearts in order to then take them back up with his message of hope.

Doubtless the book will not put to rest the suspicions of some. But given the breadth of sources upon which Scavo’s book is based, it is hard to come away from reading it without an admiration for the courage and stamina shown by Bergoglio during this difficult period.

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