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Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns: teacher, refined intellectual, friend of the poor

18/12/2016

I have lost a teacher, a Maecenas, a protector and an intimate friend. Important statements will be proclaimed and written about Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, who died today, December 14, 2016. I will not do so. I will only offer my personal testimony.

I met Cardinal Arns in the late 1950s, when I was a seminarian in the city of Agudos, São Paulo. He was just back from Paris with the prestige of a Doctorate from the Sorbonne. In the seminary, with about 300 students, he introduced new teaching methods. He made us study Greek and Latin literature, languages he knew as well as we know our mother tongue. He made us read the tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides in Greek. We learned Greek so well that we even presented Antigone in that language several times, and everyone understood it.

I encountered him again in Petropolis/Rio as a professor of Patristics and of Christian history of the first two centuries. He had us read the classics in their original language: Saint Jerome, his favorite, in Latin, and Saint John Chrysostom, in Greek.

When I visited him in the convent of nuns in the outskirts of Sao Paulo, two years ago, I found him reading sermons by Saint John Chrysostom, in Greek.

He was our head teacher throughout our theology studies in Petropolis, from 1961 to 1965. With interest he followed each of us in our searches, with a profound look in his eyes that seemed to reach deep into our souls. He always sought perfection. Even among us students, we challenged each other to see if anyone could find any defect in his life or activities. He sang the Gregorian Chant marvelously, in the Solesmes style, more delicate than the strict style of Beuron, that had predominated until his arrival.

For four years I accompanied him in the pastoral of the peripheries. Thursday and Saturday evenings and all day Sundays, I went with him to the chapel of the neighborhood of Itamaraty, in Petropolis/Rio. He would visit all the houses, especially the Portuguese families who cultivated flowers and other horticulture. Wherever he went, he would immediately found a school. He encouraged the work of local poets and writers. After the 10 o’clock Mass, he would gather with them to listen to the poems and short stories they had written during the week. He would intellectually stimulate everyone to read, to write and to narrate for everyone the stories they had read.

Cardinal Arns was a refined intellectual, well versed in French literature. He wrote 49 books. He urged us to follow Paul Claudel’s example, who used to write at least a page every day. I followed his advice, and now I have written more than 100 books.

What always impressed me most about Cardinal Arns was his Franciscan love and affection for the poor. When he was made Auxiliary Bishop of São Paulo, he immediately went to work in the peripheries of the city, encouraging the ecclesiastic base communities and personally committing himself to Paulo Freire. Since this was the period of the Brazilian dictatorship, which was especially fierce in São Paulo, he immediately undertook the cause of the refugees who had fled the horrors of the dictatorships of Argentina, Uruguay and Chile. His special mission was to visit prisons, see the wounds of torture, courageously denounce them and defend the human rights that were so savagely violated. He risked his life, in the face of threats and attempts on his life. But as a Franciscan, he always maintained serenity as one who is in the palm of the hand of God rather than the claws of police repression.

Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was the Brazil Project: Never again, which he developed with Rabbi Henry Sobel, the Presbyterian pastor Jaime Wright, and a team of researchers. It collected reports consisting of more than 1,000,000 pages, from the 707 processes of the Superior Military Tribunal. The book, Brazil Never Again, published by Editora Vozes, played a key role in the identification and unmasking of the torturers of the military regimen, and helped accelerate the fall of the dictatorship.

Personally, I am deeply grateful to Cardinal Arns for having stood by me in the doctrinal process carried out against me by the former Sacred Office, (the Inquisition), in Rome, in 1982, under the presidency of then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. In the dialogue that followed my examination, between Cardinal Ratzinger, Cardinal Lorscheider and Cardinal Arns, in which I also took part, Cardinal Arns courageously made clear to Cardinal Ratzinger: «That document you published a week ago about the Theology of Liberation, does not correspond with the facts, facts that we know very well; this theology is beneficial for the faithful and for the communities; you have accepted the version of the enemies of this theology, namely, the Latin American military and the conservative groups of the episcopate, who are unsatisfied with the changes in the pastoral and the modes of living the faith that this type of theology implies». And he added: «I await from you a new, positive, document, that recognizes this form of theology, starting from the suffering of the poor and in function of their liberation». And that happened, three years later.

All this is already the past. There remains the memory of a Cardinal who was always on the side of the poor and never let the cry of the oppressed for the violation of their rights be ignored. Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns is an everlasting reference to the Good Shepherd who gives his life for the smallest and those who suffer most in this world.

Leonardo Boff Theologian-Philosopher  and of the Earthcharter Commission

Free translation from the Spanish sent by
Melina Alfaro, alfaro_melina@yahoo.com.ar.
Done at REFUGIO DEL RIO GRANDE, Texas, EE.UU.

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