ROME— Pope Francis routinely extols the virtues of dialogue and building bridges, and on Friday he put his schedule where his mouth is, welcoming a figure from his native country who had been not only one of his most vocal critics, but who actually once occupied his cathedral and used the area behind the altar as a bathroom.
Argentine human right activist Hebe de Bonafini called on Francis at the pope’s home, the Santa Marta residence on Vatican grounds, marking the first time the two have seen each other since Francis’ election to the papacy in March 2013. The session lasted over an hour, one of the longest private audiences Francis has given since his election.
Bonafini is the founder of the “Mothers of Plaza de Mayo,” a group dedicated to demanding justice for the “disappeared” during Argentina’s military regime in the 1970s. During a press conference after her meeting with the pontiff Friday, she said she had asked forgiveness because she and her group had “been mistaken” about Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis.
“Beregoglio grew when he became Francis,” Bonafini told reporters. “One has to ask for forgiveness when you make a mistake, and the Mothers do so.”
“Leave it at that, we all make mistakes,” is what the pontiff told her, according to Bonafini, who lost two of her three children during Argentina’s period of military rule in the 1970s.
An estimated 15,000 to 30,000 people were kidnapped, tortured and murdered by the military, known today as the desaparecidos, because their bodies were never found.
Bonafini is on record calling the pontiff a “fascist,” accusing him of collaborating with Argentina’s military regime, and asking, “Where was God when they threw our children into the sea?”
In 2008, the movement she leads occupied the Buenos Aires cathedral and “improvised” a bathroom behind the altar.
Yet since his election to the papacy she’s changed her tone, now admitting that during the 12 years he served as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, she had been “quick to judge” Bergoglio.
The private encounter came after several invitations from the pope, which Bonafini always refused. Last year, she posed a set of “conditions” to meet Francis, including a public admission from the Church of having “a lot of participation in [Argentina’s] repression” and for him to celebrate a Mass for priests and nuns tercermundistas, who’ve disappeared in Latin America.
[The “Priests for the Third World” was a religious movement born in Argentina, made mostly of priests working in the slums, associated with Marxism. They are largely considered an Argentinian forerunner of liberation theology].
During Friday’s meeting, Bonafini gave the pope a white handkerchief, the symbol of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo.
Although the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo has been hailed globally for its defense of human rights and historical justice, inside Argentina it’s sometimes controversial, associated with left-wing political movements and seen as friendly to Marxist lightning rods such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.
Days before the encounter, Francis sent an email to an Argentine friend in which the pontiff said that he was aware of the mixed reaction the visit was creating back home.
“It seems that the stone of the scandal is that I receive Mrs. Bonafini. I know who she is, but my obligation as a shepherd is to understand meekly,” Francis wrote.
“This lady, from the square (de Mayo), insulted me several times with heavy artillery,” the pope said, referencing Buenos Aires’ main square, flanked on one side by the cathedral in which Bergoglio used to live.
“But to a woman who had her children kidnapped, and who doesn’t know how or for how long they were tortured, when they were killed and where they were buried, I do not close the door,” he wrote.
“What I see there is the pain of a mother,” said the note, revealed by the Argentine news agency Telam. “If she uses me or not, it is not my problem. My problem would be not to treat her with the gentleness of a shepherd.”
Francis had said a similar thing to Argentine Father Fabián Báez, during a phone conversation some weeks ago.
“In front of a mother whose child was murdered, I kneel down and don’t ask her anything,” Báez reported the pontiff had told him.
During the press conference on Friday, Bonafini also said she’d asked the pope to visit his home country, to which he answered, “I was supposed to go this year, but I can’t.”