Cardinal Silva's Tough Stance Gives Chile a New Hero
In the last four years his native Chile has careened from the democratically elected Marxist regime of Salvador Allende to rightist repression under the heel of Gen. Augusto Pinochet and the military junta. Raul Cardinal Silva Henriquez, archbishop of Santiago and the Roman Catholic leader in Chile, has sustained brutal ideological attacks from extremists in both camps. His outspoken criticism of the junta’s repression of human rights has made Cardinal Silva a folk hero among the Chilean poor and a rallying point for opposition to the Santiago regime.
In March the cardinal flew to Rome to alert Pope Paul VI to a growing litany of political atrocities against the church: 10 priests jailed by Pinochet’s secret police; five U.S. missionary nuns forced to leave the country under embassy protection to avoid arrest; lay staff members of a church-backed peace committee detained by police. The committee itself, the only organization the junta had tolerated as a voice for human rights, has now been abolished by government order.
Upon his return from the Vatican, Cardinal Silva went directly to a prison to convey to three priests—jailed for helping obtain medical treatment and political asylum for a wounded leftist—a message from the Pope proclaiming them “martyrs of Christian mercy.”
“Viva el cardinal!” and “Viva la libertad!” rang through a church outside Santiago where Silva, accompanied by 150 slum priests, said Mass the day after his return. After joyously following the cardinal outdoors, the throng of 4,000 screamed epithets at machine gun-toting soldiers.
One of 19 children born to a prosperous farmer, Silva, now 68, studied law before entering the Salesian order. He chose as his motto “To proclaim the Gospel to the poor” upon becoming bishop of Valparaiso in 1959. He was elevated to cardinal by Pope John XXIII in 1962.
The essence of Cardinal Silva’s enduring political influence lies in his diplomatic agility at the personal level. At his residence in Santiago, the cardinal treats junta officials to tasty cuisine and vintage drink. Of those who are critical of this tactic, Cardinal Silva observes: “They threw it in Christ’s face, too, that he ate with sinners, that he held dialogue with that kind of people.”
While behind-the-scenes persuasion is his preferred modus operandi, the cardinal is aware that “some things have to be said publicly.” Without doubt, the high visibility of Silva’s position of principle makes it politically impossible for him to be removed quietly in the night as has happened to other, less widely known critics of the regime in Chile.
“The purpose of saying something is to achieve something—to convince, not to offend,” he believes, adding, “It’s not always easy. Sometimes the words get away from me.”