Benedict XVI gave us words of great comfort and encouragement in the message he delivered on Christmas Eve.
"God anticipates us again and again in unexpected ways," the pope said. "He does not cease to search for us, to raise us up as often as we might need. He does not abandon the lost sheep in the wilderness into which it had strayed. God does not allow himself to be confounded by our sin. Again and again he begins afresh with us".
If these words comforted and encouraged me they will surely have done the same for leaders of the church in Argentina, among many others. To the judicious and fair-minded outsider it has been clear for years that the upper reaches of the Argentine church contained many "lost sheep in the wilderness", men who had communed and supported the unspeakably brutal Western-supported military dictatorship which seized power in that country in 1976 and battened on it for years. Not only did the generals slaughter thousands unjustly, often dropping them out of aeroplanes over the River Plate and selling off their orphan children to the highest bidder, they also murdered at least two bishops and many priests. Yet even the execution of other men of the cloth did nothing to shake the support of senior clerics, including representatives of the Holy See, for the criminality of their leader General Jorge Rafael Videla and his minions.
As it happens, in the week before Christmas in the city of Córdoba Videla and some of his military and police cohorts were convicted by their country's courts of the murder of 31 people between April and October 1976, a small fraction of the killings they were responsible for. The convictions brought life sentences for some of the military. These were not to be served, as has often been the case in Argentina and neighbouring Chile, in comfy armed forces retirement homes but in common prisons. Unsurprisingly there was dancing in the city's streets when the judge announced the sentences.
What one did not hear from any senior member of the Argentine hierarchy was any expression of regret for the church's collaboration and in these crimes. The extent of the church's complicity in the dark deeds was excellently set out by Horacio Verbitsky, one of Argentina's most notable journalists, in his book El Silencio (Silence). He recounts how the Argentine navy with the connivance of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, now the Jesuit archbishop of Buenos Aires, hid from a visiting delegation of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission the dictatorship's political prisoners. Bergoglio was hiding them in nothing less than his holiday home in an island called El Silencio in the River Plate. The most shaming thing for the church is that in such circumstances Bergoglio's name was allowed to go forward in the ballot to chose the successor of John Paul II. What scandal would not have ensued if the first pope ever to be elected from the continent of America had been revealed as an accessory to murder and false imprisonment
One would have thought that the Argentine bishops would have seized the opportunity to call for pardon for themselves and put on sackcloth and ashes as the sentences were announced in Córdoba but that has not so far happened.
But happily Their Eminences have just been given another chance to express contrition. Next month the convicted murderer Videla will be arraigned for his part in the killing of Enrique Angelelli, bishop of the Andean diocese of La Rioja and a supporter of the cause of poorer Argentines. He was run off the highway by a hit squad of the Videla régime and killed on 4th August 1976 shortly after Videla's putsch.
Cardinal Bergoglio has plenty of time to be measured for a suit of sackcloth – perhaps tailored in a suitable clerical grey - to be worn when the church authorities are called into the witness box by the investigating judge in the Angelelli case. Ashes will be readily available if the records of the Argentine bishops' many disingenuous and outrightly mendacious statements about Videla and Angelelli are burned.