Dom Paulo Arns, 100 years old

Image: Adrien Olichon


The archbishop chose human rights as the foundation of his work

It is very impressive, even moving, the autobiography of D. Paulo Evaristo Arns, From hope to utopia. Testimony of a lifetime (Rio de Janeiro: Sextante, 2001), historical testimony about Brazil after World War II, essentially about the post-64 period.

A colloquial tone prevails in a relaxed style, even when the themes and situations are not. The author talks about himself, his parents and siblings, German immigrants, the Church's influence on his upbringing, his trajectory from seminarian to Cardinal Archbishop of São Paulo. He reveals himself as a sagacious politician, the strategist who reorganized the Church of São Paulo, the prelate who faced the dictatorship with a clear and precise dimension of his authority (hence why he presented himself in ecclesial vestments whenever this condition was decisive, as when visiting prisoners politicians), but also his refined diplomacy. D. Paulo makes the people, the poor, the excluded, parade; the priests and nuns, the powerful of the Church and the State, civilians and military about whom D. Paulo will always have a word of appreciation or recognition.

For this reason, it is a pity that this magnificent work does not contain an index of names, or that the author himself has omitted them, on several occasions, when they were essential for the understanding of the narrative.

From the perspective of the Church, the working class becomes a political subject in the context of workers' pastorals, reflection groups, Bible reading, liturgical activities and base communities. Not just the factory worker, but the poor, the unemployed, the immigrant. that is, the God's people in relation to which utopia denies both capitalism and communism, for excluding man from the center of their economic and power systems. Hope, on the other hand, is guided by the encyclicals of Pope John XXIII.

D. Paulo, who did not work alone, shares his work with many people. Among them the theologian Friar Gorgulho, Dominican. He knew how to value the parish priest, promote the laity, encourage women, welcome students. He was highly criticized by the Vatican, under the supreme power of John Paul II, because he did not prevent, on the contrary, he authorized the publication of Liberation Theology works that won over Brazil and Latin America. How could they not be published if they were previously approved by rigorous committees of experts? How to muffle the breath of the Spirit, even if the enchantment of this theology with Marxism mortally wounded the civil and military authorities of the dictatorship, engaged in a frontal war against communism?

Fertilized by Vatican II, the ecumenical movement in São Paulo took root in politics, social issues, Catholic religiosity and inter-Christian dialogue (see the grateful references to Pentecostal pastor Manoel de Mello and Rev. Philip Porter, from the World Council of Churches) and with other religions as well, especially with Judaism, the birthplace of Christianity. For this reason, the Presbyterian pastor Jaime Wright, who died recently, appears so prominently: because he was so close to D. Paulo, he was known as an “auxiliary bishop”.

D. Paulo lived under the aim of military truculence, but he resisted with non-violence. On December 13, 1968, authoritarianism was imposed on the country through Institutional Act nº 5: torture became a symbol and fate of those who fought the dictatorship, even if by peaceful means. The dictatorship also imposed itself on the military apparatus, constraining and controlling worthy soldiers who did not share in the illegal and unspeakable violence against political prisoners, as is the case of Brigadier Eduardo Gomes, who recognized D. Paulo as his bishop.

Sometimes I had difficulty identifying the theologian, as the political and ecclesiastical framework appears with great force and prominence. But the theologian is there, in simple ideas like the Gospel. On the unbeliever: “During my studies at the Sorbonne I had met excellent people who confessed that they had no faith in a God who influences history. I wondered where they were looking for support for so much persistence in kindness and solidarity”. And about the needy: “I never asked about a person's political or ideological color. I was only interested in knowing if the image of God was being respected and if I could help him in times of solitude and persecution. The God of Justice is the same God of Love”.

The Curia welcomed everyone. In the bloody 70s, when a person fell into the hands of repression, it was D. Paulo who was turned to, as he had contacts in the military area who also rejected torture. Many people have been saved this way.

Hence the importance of his affective and emotional testimony about Golbery do Couto e Silva, military and intellectual, minister of the Geisel government and frequent interlocutor of the archbishop. D. Paulo recognizes the “generous action of General Golbery do Couto e Silva, who became my friend and solved several cases that could have provoked a national and even international reaction. Both he and I thought that dialogue is the most efficient weapon for all critical situations and even for those that seem insoluble”. The prelate for human rights does justice to this picture of the military regime that operated the political transition: “he was a very intelligent, informed and curious man, with a very pleasant informal conversation. What was new to me is that he looked for interlocutors in the Church, which he considered better informed than the SNI itself (…) Golbery soon revealed himself to be totally opposed to torture and even told details of horrifying cases (…) He openly confessed that he accepted our fight against torture and arbitrary arrests”.

The archbishop who took dozens of people to Golbery, in search of their loved ones, had a partner in the military “who also helped to prepare a less disastrous end than we feared for the terrible dictatorship we suffered”.

D. Paulo elected human rights as the foundations of his action, through the Justice and Peace Commission and specific pastorals, with a strong sensitivity to the middle class. It is possible that some readers participated in the launch of this Commission in our city, on 25.08.77, in the Cathedral, when, in a simple and moving ceremony, D. Paulo stated that “we live in a time of fear, but we need to declare well loudly that the Christian has no right to be afraid.”

As you can see, this man of God was very brave. The reaction against the murders of Wladimir Herzog and Manoel Fiel Filho, in prison, found D. Paulo at the head of civil society, contributing to the end of the military regime. For, for this apostle, “the shepherd does not abandon his flock when there is a threat”.

*Eliezer Rizzo de Oliveira is a retired full professor of political science at Unicamp.

Originally published in the newspaper Popular Mailon November 28, 2001.


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