Pope John Paul II: Memories to Cherish

April 1987

The Pope in Chile:
Giving a Boost to Human Rights

by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

St. Anthony Messenger
July 1987

John Paul II's visit to Chile April 1-6, 1987, had a broader purpose, of course, than to tackle human rights issues. But already on the flight to South America, on March 31 he asserted that working for justice and human rights was an essential part of the Church's mission. He rejected the position of political figures like [President Augusto] Pinochet who tell bishops that they should spend all their time praying, and stay out of politics.

When he preached to the Chilean bishops two days later, he told them: "Never hesitate to defend always, before all, the legitimate rights of the person, created in the image and likeness of God. Proclaim your preferential love for the poor...." He defended the Church's right "to pass moral judgment even in political matters" and expressed hope the country would soon become more democratic.

Preaching a gospel of unity rather than one that would lock groups into permanent confrontation, the pope insisted repeatedly on reconciliation and nonviolence. He brought this message to an enormous youth meeting held in the Nahonal Stadium, an infamous place of torture, death and detention for thousands of Chileans after the 1973 coup. Without ignoring the "sadness" of the place and carefully urging the youth "not to remain indifferent in the face of injustice," he left them with an important caution: "Do not let yourself be seduced by violence and the thousand reasons which appear to justify it." The Church rejects "all ideologies which proclaim violence and hate as means to obtain justice."

The papal visit gave a welcome boost to the human rights movement in Chile, according to most observers. For the first time since the dictatorship began, massive crowds of Chileans could assemble without being dispersed.

The Catholic Church, as a key defender of human rights, together with the opposition parties and others working for the return to democracy, found themselves affirmed by the pope’s visit. In his speech to the bishops, the pope shared his hope that “in the near future” it would be “possible for each citizen to have a full and responsible role in the making of important decisions that touch on the life of the entire nation.” With statements like these, along with other symbolic gestures, Pope John Paul II was opening doors toward greater democracy and the end of military rule.

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