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ROME – When Argentina lost its second most famous citizen Sunday, the praise heaped upon her by Pope Francis marked the latest example of what can be described as a complex, and, at times, tumultuous, but ultimately warm relationship between the two.
Hebe de Bonafini, founder of Argentina’s famed Madres de la Paza de Mayo, or “Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo” activist organization, died Sunday at the age of 93, marking the end of an important chapter in Argentina’s post-military rule history.
Founded by Bonafini in 1977 after she lost two of her three children during Argentina’s military dictatorship, the “Mothers of Plaza de Mayo” are dedicated to demanding justice for the many who, like Bonafini’s two sons, were “disappeared” by the country’s military regime in the 1970s.
During that time, an estimated 15-30,000 people were kidnapped, tortured and murdered by the military, and have become known as the desaparecidos, because their bodies were never found.
Bonafini’s activism and influence in Argentine society held such political and cultural importance that after her death, Argentine President Alberto Fernández declared three days of national mourning in the wake of her passing to honor her lifelong work promoting human rights.
The Argentinian Bishops’ Conference sent a Tweet the day she died voicing their sorrow and asking for consolation for her friends and family, as well as the entire Mothers of Plaza de Mayo organization.
In a statement marking Bonafini’s Nov. 20 death, Pope Francis sent a note to the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo assuring them of his closeness, and praising the activist as someone who knew how to transform her pain into “an untiring search for the defense of the human rights of the marginalized and invisible.”
Recalling a meeting between the two in 2016, Francis recalled “the passion that she transmitted to me for wanting to give a voice to those who did not have one.”
“Her valor and courage, in moments where silence reigned, pushed her and kept the search for the truth, memory, and justice alive,” leading weekly marches so that Argentine society would not forget its past, and so that “the commitment to the other would be the best word an antidote against the atrocities that were suffered,” he said.
Yet despite the pope’s warm words, he and Bonafini were not always close. In fact, until very recently, Bonafini had been one of the Argentine pope’s fiercest and most vocal critics.
Born in the city of Ensenada in December 1928, Bonafini was married in 1942 and had three children, two sons and a daughter.
In early 1977, her eldest son was kidnapped and “disappeared” in the city of La Plata, and several months later, in December of that year, her second son met the same fate.
After founding the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, Bonafini had a hand in establishing a national university institute, a newspaper, a radio station, a cultural center, and a bookstore. She also managed the “ex-ESMA” center, which is the headquarters for a human rights forum.
Bonafini’s contributions were widely acclaimed, though at times her organization was seen as controversial within Argentina for being too closely associated with left-wing political movements deemed friendly to prominent Marxist figures such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.
She was also for years openly critical of the then-Cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, at one point calling him a “fascist” and accusing him of collaborating with Argentina’s military regime.
Often Bonafini would jeer at the cardinal and future pope, making comments such as, “Where was God when they threw our children into the sea?”
Her opposition to Bergoglio was such that at one point, in 2008, she and other members of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo occupied the cathedral of Buenos Aires and used the space behind the main altar as their private bathroom.
Yet Bonafini’s tone began to change once Bergoglio was elected to the papacy and became Pope Francis, and the two began to exchange letters.
After several invitations from the pope, the two finally met in person at the Vatican in 2016, holding a nearly two-hour conversation at the pope’s residence in the Vatican’s Saint Martha guesthouse in which they reconciled their past differences.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Bonafini said she had been “quick to judge” Bergoglio, and that he “grew when he became Francis.”
She indicated that she had apologized to her fellow Argentine, saying, “One has to ask for forgiveness when you make a mistake, and the Mothers do so.” In response, she said, the pope told her to “Leave it at that, we all make mistakes.”
In an interview with Radio AM-530 afterward, Bonafini said the meeting with Francis also helped restore her personal faith, and that “I had completely lost my faith and when the relationship started, he gave me back the faith, which is so necessary.”
“Without faith one cannot live, and thanks to this faith, I talk to my sons every night,” she said.
Bonafini on that occasion gifted the pope one of the white handkerchiefs worn by the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo during their weekly marches demanding justice. This week will mark the first time in nearly 50 years that Bonafini will be absent from one of these rondas.
Pope Francis sent Bonafini a hand-written letter in May thanking her for a book published for the 45th anniversary of founding of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo that she had sent him prior, saying he read it “carefully” and that the members of the organization “are protagonists of this story of pain with the search for your disappeared children.”
In an interview with Argentinian newspaper Clarín following Bonafini’s death, Archbishop Víctor Fernández of La Plata said he saw Bonafini shortly before she passed, and that he found her “very well prepared” for her death.
On that occasion, days before she died, the pope was on Bonafini’s mind, Fernández said, saying Bonafini told him that “she returned to the faith after reconciling with him,” meaning Pope Francis.
In his note to the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, Pope Francis asked that Bonafini be granted eternal rest and prayed that God would “not to allow that all the good done be lost.” He also prayed for the organization itself, that God would “comfort and accompany you to continue being the Mothers of Memory.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen