Pope prays for health of celebrated Argentine Nobel laureate

Elise Ann Allen
|Senior Correspondent

ROME – Pope Francis has sent a note to famed Argentine Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel after the latter suffered a health scare at the start of the New Year, wishing him well and offering prayers for a speedy recovery.

According to Argentine newspaper La Nación, doctors at the hospital where Perez Esquivel, 90, has been admitted have described his condition as possibly related to a “cerebrovascular accident,” meaning a stroke.

In a letter addressed to Bishop Gabriel Mestre of Mar de Plata, where the hospital is located, the pope said, “Dear brother, Monsignor Mestre told me about your health problem. Through these lines I assure you of my closeness and my prayer for your quick recovery.”

Pope Francis also offered greetings to Perez Esquivel’s wife, asking that “Jesus bless you and the Holy Virgin take you into her care.”

Born as the son of a fisherman in Buenos Aires in 1931, Perez Esquivel won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980 for his passive activism against the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983.

His peace efforts began in the 1960s, when he joined several initiatives carried out by various Latin American Christian pacifist groups.

Having worked as an artist, sculptor, and professor of architecture, he left academia in 1974 and devoted himself entirely to assisting the poor and fighting social and political injustice through an approach of non-violence.

Following the 1976 coup d’état that brought the dictatorship of Argentine General Jorge Videla to power, Perez Esquivel work to form and finance links between popularly based organizations in order to defend human rights.

One of these was the Servicio Paz y Justicia NGO, or the “Service, Peace, and Justice Foundation,” which was co-founded by Perez Esquivel in 1974 as a nonviolent Christian organization committed to defending political prisoners jailed by Argentina’s military junta.

Perez Esquivel was arrested by state police several times and received the Nobel Peace Prize while on probation after a 14-month stint in jail after being arrested by junta forces, whose oppressive tactics he had long spoken out against.

In 1999, he was given the prestigious ecclesial Pacem in Terris award, a peace prize awarded annually since 1964 in commemoration of the 1963 encyclical from Pope John XXIII bearing the same name.

In his acceptance speech for the Nobel prize, Perez Esquivel said he was accepting it in name of “the people of Latin America,” and criticized a social system that benefitted the few at the expense of the poor, saying, “Institutionalized violence, misery, and oppression enshrine a social order that benefits very few: the rich get richer at the expense of the poor getting poorer.”

Two days later, an attempt was made on Perez Esquivel’s life, but he was undeterred, and continued his efforts in support of human rights through art and a newspaper he established titled, Peace and Justice.

Shortly after Pope Francis’s election in March 2013, he met with Perez Esquivel in private audience at the Vatican.

In a message sent to Perez Esquivel last year for the 40th anniversary of his Nobel prize, the pope described him as an “exceptional defender of human rights,” and thanked him for his witness “in the beautiful and painful moments of the country, for your words, your courage, and your simplicity.

Perez Esquivel has also continued to be an enthusiast of Pope Francis, saying in an interview with Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano in May 2020 that he was continuing to work to “help those that Pope Francis calls the ‘discarded.’”

“Pope Francis appeals to the conscience and heart of the powerful and says that ‘no one saves themselves alone,’” he said, adding, “To build a society where law and equality are valid for all, it is necessary to spread the culture of solidarity.”

He also praised pope’s attention to the environment and praised his 2015 eco-encyclical Laudato Si and backed Pope Francis’s challenge to Argentine youth in 2015, when he told them, hagan lío, or “wreak havoc” in the streets, being unafraid to get messy in their efforts to spread the joy of the Gospel.

Perez Esquivel said at the time that his hope for the future is with the youth, who he said, “must discover themselves and discover the paths of life, spirituality, and values.”

“They must know that amid the lights and shadows of existence there is always the hope of building another world that is more just and fraternal among equals,” he said, arguing, as Pope Francis himself has in the past, that young people “must stop being spectators.”

Rather, “they must become protagonists of their life and builders of their own history,” he said, adding, “young people must be like underground rivers that emerge with the strength of life and hope.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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