ROME— Amid the gruesome atrocities that scarred Argentina during its “dirty war” in the 1970s, the San Patricio Massacre was among the most shocking: In the early hours of July 4th, 1976, three Pallottine priests and two seminarians were brutally beaten and shot to death by unidentified gunmen.
They were killed by the country’s last military regime, which falsely accused the priests of being Marxists to justify their murders. One standing next to the other, they were shot several times in the back.
Today, the Catholic church in Argentina hopes to see the slain priests and seminarians declared martyrs, and by the same man who opened their path to sainthood 11 years ago: Pope Francis, who was then the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
As the country marked the 40th anniversary of their deaths this year, Francis sent a message to “unite” himself to a Mass celebrated in the memory of the Servants of God Alfredo Leaden, Pedro Duffau, Alfredo Kelly, Salvador Barbeito Doval and Emilio Barletti.
“I knew Father Alfie Kelly personally, a priest who thought only of God and, as you know, I followed his tragedy with a sense of faith, as this is the key to his life, and also to his death,” Francis wrote.
The pope knew Kelly well: Bergoglio was his spiritual director and confessor at the moment of his death.
“Remembering these witnesses can be a stimulus for all of us,” he added.
The five men murdered in the San Patricio church in the upscale Buenos Aires neighborhood of Belgrano, he wrote, “present us with a surrendered life, without thought for themselves, that as the servant of the Gospel seeks to be where the Lord is, among the last.”
When he was still an archbishop, Bergoglio, spoke up in defense of the five victims several times.
In 2001 for instance, he celebrated a Mass marking the 25th anniversary of their death, saying, “This parish has been blessed by the presence of those who chose to live not for themselves, but to die so that others may live.”
In that same homily, Bergoglio said that he was a “witness” of Kelly’s life.
“He thought only about God. And I mention his name because I was a witness to his heart, but in him I mention all the others,” he said at the time.
Bergoglio also said that they had been killed because “labels” had been put on them, “labels the world uses to justify” wrongs.
The massacre in San Patricio took place amidst a maelstrom of violence, the result of a convulsed society during Argentina’s bloodiest military coup from 1976-1983. An estimated 15,000 to 30,000 people were killed, many after being kidnapped and tortured.
Thousands of people were taken and their remains never found, known as the “desaparecidos” or disappeared.
Their murder was also a searing example of the strains within the Argentine church: In all, one archbishop, 18 priests, 11 seminarians and close to 50 lay workers were killed by the military’s death squads as they sought to eliminate “left-leaning” activists.
Even a simple homily, in front of the wrong people, could have been a death sentence.
After the massacre, the army announced that “subversives” had been the perpetrators, despite evidence showing they had been shot in revenge for the bombing of a police station that had killed 20 federal police officers two days earlier.
On the night of the murder, the gunmen left a message on the floor written in chalk, saying they had been killed for being members of the “Movement of Priests for the Third World,” a Marxist-inspired group that is still active in the country.
There’s no evidence, however, that the priests murdered were part of this movement. Following the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, which ended in 1965, the Pallottine order had a special focus on the poor.
However, a cable from the-then U.S. ambassador to Argentina, declassified in 2006 and posted by Wikileaks on the Internet in 2013, says the police believed the two seminarians were involved in the priests’ movement.
This suspicion alone was enough to consider them “fair game in a wave of vigilante-type executions police have carried out in retaliation” for the bombing.
The five members of the community knew they were in danger.
There was a letter asking for Kelly, who headed the parish, to be removed under allegations of being a Communist. This label arose after he scolded his parishioners for attending auctions where the property of those “disappeared” by the military was being sold.
But according to a statement released by the Pallottine order, they were killed because of their decision to “obey God before the powers of this world.”
“Announcing the value of life amidst so much death made of their lives a prophetic testimony,” the order wrote.
The attack, they said, was perpetrated against a community engaged in announcing the Gospel: “Their faith led them to defend the value of every life and to promote the Gospel values of justice, peace and commitment with humanity’s helpless ones.”
On July 4, Cardinal Mario Poli, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, celebrated a Mass in the San Patricio Church to honor their memories. In his homily, there was no room for doubt regarding their martyrdom.
“The blood of the martyrs is the seed for new Christians,” he said.
“Martyrdom is not a gift one seeks. It’s something that arrives through virtue and the witness of Christ,” said Poli, who was handpicked by Francis as his successor in Argentina.
Despite there being sufficient evidence to prove that the murder was orchestrated by the military, no one has ever been charged.
Argentina’s justice system has recently reactivated the case, and the Pallottine brothers announced earlier in the month their decision to become plaintiffs in the trial.
Bishop Carlos Malfa, secretary of Argentina’s bishops conference, announced in March, after meeting Pope Francis, that the Vatican was going to open its archives to try to shed light on the crime.
On June 30, Father Juan Sebastián Velasco, the man leading the canonization cause, said in a press conference that the order wants to know the reasons behind the crimes so that they can move forward in “honoring the memory of our brothers, who died for living a life at the service of the Gospel.”