ROME — Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, is in Pope Francis’ home country today to officially declare four people killed during Argentina’s Dirty War, including one bishop, as martyrs.
Known locally as the Martires Riojanos, the four people are Bishop Enrique Angelelli, Fathers Carlos de Dios Murias and Gabriel Longueville, and layman Wenceslao Pedernera.
Angelelli died on August 4, 1976, in a car accident in the northern city of La Rioja, and for years, despite suspicions to the contrary, the official version of his death as an accident endured.
It was well-known that Argentina’s military wanted the bishop dead due to his involvement with social issues and his decision to shelter priests from a movement known as “the Third World,” some of whom had Marxist-inspired beliefs and embraced violence.
The other three were killed in different situations, but all were close to Angelelli and were killed by the military for the work they were doing.
In 2006 the Catholic Church acknowledged that it was possible Angelelli’s death was a crime, and in 2010 the case was officially reopened by Argentina’s civil authorities when a former priest who had been riding with the bishop came forth and said their car had been forced off the road.
In 2014 two former senior military officers were sentenced to life in prison for the bishop’s death: Former army chief Luciano Benjamin Menendez and Luis Fernando Estrella.
Speaking ahead of Saturday’s beatification ceremony, Becciu said “the death of a man of the Church should not cause divisions,” yet in the case of Angelelli, it did.
“The criteria that guide the actions of men of God transcend calculations or political alignments, go beyond the immediate and look beyond, considering the good of the people,” he told the Italian news agency Ansa.
In the words of a priest with close knowledge of the beatification cause who requested to speak on background, “I have no doubts that Angelelli was a martyr, just like Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. But the Vatican waited almost 30 years so that the political situation in El Salvador wouldn’t cause division over his canonization. We’re not there with Argentina’s history yet.”
Romero, killed in 1980 by a bullet through the heart while he was saying Mass, was recently declared a saint by Pope Francis, after his cause was revived by Pope emeritus Benedict XVI.
“Romero, like Angelelli, was a theologically solid bishop, with a strong spirituality and a Gospel-based defense of the poorest,” the source, an Argentine priest, told Crux.
Angelelli stood strongly against the country’s military regime, a position not every Argentine bishop shared at the time, one of the darkest in the pope’s country’s history. An estimated 8,000 to 30,000 people, many of them members of a guerrilla group, “disappeared” in Argentina from 1976 to 1983.
Soon after Francis’s election to the papacy, accusations resurfaced that the new pope had been complicit in the arrest and torture of two fellow Jesuits during Argentina’s “Dirty War,” which was later denied by one of those Jesuits (the other had since died.) The tempest brought to light several cases in which the future pope, often at personal risk, had acted to save dissidents targeted by the military regime.
Father Luis Escalante, another Argentine priest, told Crux that the Catholic Church in Argentina missed an opportunity to educate the country on the meaning of Angelelli’s martyrdom.
“The situation of the Catholic Church during the military rule was a complex one, and it should have been explained before Saturday’s ceremony,” Escalante, a Rome-based canon lawyer who’s worked on many martyrdom causes, said.
Angelelli wasn’t killed in odium fidei, meaning in hatred of the faith, which is the most common cause for a person to be declared a martyr: “The bishop wasn’t murdered for his faith, but his faith-based defense of social justice,” the priest said.
Another element of Angelelli’s sainthood case that has raised doubts is the fact that the documentation didn’t include the full report of the car accident in which he was killed. Though two people have been condemned for it, there’s a witness who says he heard the accident and there was no second car involved, meaning no one to throw the bishop’s car off the road.
The documentation studied by the Vatican did, however, include a letter Angelelli had sent the then-papal representative about death threats he was receiving for his action in favor of the poor.
One of the reasons that explains the speed for the declaration of martyrdom is the fact that then-Father Jorge Mario Bergolgio, today Pope Francis, met Angelelli and admired the work he had done in La Rioja, a poor community largely inhabited by peasants and a handful of wealthy landowners.
“He undertook the defense of these poor people by creating unions and cooperatives, and his action, like that of the other three martyrs who will be beatified, did not please the strong powers of the time so they were eliminated,” Becciu told Ansa.
The cardinal said Angelelli was a “victim” of those who “didn’t want to be disturbed in their positions of privilege and dominion. He wanted to make the voice of the exploited heard, and he defended their dignity as people.”
Archbishop Marcelo Colombo, today in Mendoza but who as bishop of La Rioja moved Angelelli’s cause forth, said the pontiff met the martyred bishop when he was the Jesuit provincial, as some of his priests were working in the northern province and suffered persecution and were imprisoned by the military.
Speaking with Argentinian journalists, Colombo said that “in 2006, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the assassination of Angelelli, Bergoglio presided over the celebrations with the participation of many bishops and priests.”
It was the man who today is the pope who, as president of the Argentine bishops’ conference, created a commission to look into the life and death of the four men soon to be declared the first martyrs of Argentina.
According to Colombo, Bergoglio also intervened with Pope Benedict XVI, asking him to send two letters held in the Vatican archives, written by Angelelli shortly before his death, that were used to re-open his case in the Argentine courts.
Bishop Dante Braida, who succeeded Colombo in La Rioja, also spoke with Argentine journalists ahead of Saturday’s ceremony, saying the entire province was in a “state of beatification” and extended an invitation for the entire Argentine church to join in the celebrations.
The stories of the four martyrs, he said, urge us to “have one ear open to the people, and another to the Gospel,” citing a famous phrase attributed to Angelelli.