‘I hope Chileans will listen,’ says former colleague as Pope Francis begins Latin American visit

A woman holds Chile's flag as Pope Francis celebrates Mass marking the World Day of Migrants and Refugees in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Jan. 14. The pope is scheduled to arrive in Santiago, Chile, Jan. 15. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)A woman holds Chile's flag as Pope Francis celebrates Mass marking the World Day of Migrants and Refugees in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Jan. 14. The pope is scheduled to arrive in Santiago, Chile, Jan. 15. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

In Chile Pope Francis will find a church that at the end of the military dictatorship (1973-90) was the most respected institution in the country because of its defense of human rights and social commitment, but today is one of the least regarded churches in Latin America. He will visit a church that officially accepts his message but does not strongly apply it, a church that, while it does much for the poor and disadvantaged, has been badly rocked by the sexual abuse crisis and the pope’s appointment of a controversial bishop. He will visit an economically successful country where the number of people who profess to be Catholic has fallen considerably in recent decades, from 80 percent in 1987 to not more than 60 percent today, according to a recent study by the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile.

Fernando Montes Matte, S.J., the former rector of the Jesuit-run Universidad Alberto Hurtado in Santiago, the capital city, speaks about these and other major issues—including the situation of the Mapuche indigenous people and the issue of migrant people—that the pope is likely to address during his visit to this country of 18 million people, 13 million of whom are Catholics.


“I hope that we Chileans will listen to his message,” Father Montes told America. He was rector of the Jesuit university from its founding in 1997 until December 2015, when he resigned. He knows Pope Francis well; they got to know each other as scholastics in Argentina and were provincials of the Jesuits in their respective countries at the same time. He has been one of the close advisors of Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet.

What are the most significant changes in Chile since John Paul II visited 30 years ago?
Chile lived under a military dictatorship 30 years ago, and today the country has become a democracy. In this period, the country has taken an impressive step forward. It has experienced enormous economic growth and reduced poverty from 43 to 11 percent. In high school education, enrollment has surpassed 50 percent and middle school education is compulsory for everyone.The country has come out of its geographical and cultural isolation. New social networks have been created, and a more engaged public demands transparency.

Although there has been [economic] growth and a reduction of poverty, there are, nevertheless, great social inequalities. Politics and institutions, in general, are in crisis due to a lack of confidence [in them]. Chile, like no other country, applied the neoliberal doctrine learned in the University of Chicago. Today we have a culture that is individualistic, competitive, consumerist and demanding. Everyone defends their rights, and there is little talk about responsibilities. Nevertheless, many people reject this model.

In 1987, the Chilean Catholic Church played a big role in society. How do people see the church and religion today?
The Catholic Church and especially the hierarchy played a very important role in the defense of human rights during the military dictatorship. At the end of that [dictatorship], the church was the most respected institution in the country with a more than 80 percent approval [rating]. Today, it is one of the least regarded [churches] in Latin America.

Three factors have influenced this loss of prestige: the rapid introduction of modernity or post-modernity, which changes the role of religion; the weak leadership of a less socially [conscious] hierarchy and a preoccupation among new bishops with sexual ethics and family problems; and, finally, the [sexual] abuse [of minors] by clergy that was widely reported in the press.

Although there is a strong popular faith, the research shows much less appreciation for the church and a large reduction in [the numbers of] those who declare themselves Catholics, especially among the young.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the church in Chile today? Are its bishops united? What does it hope for from Francis’ visit?
Although the press speaks little of the positive aspects of the church, it nonetheless carries out many important works among the poorest [in society]. And even though it might seem contradictory, these same criticisms show that the Chilean people expect more from its church.

The issues that most concern the Chileans coincide with many of the messages of the pope, for example, the problem of the indigenous community, the problems of migrant people, care for the environment.

It is obvious that there is a lack of leadership and a strong dialogue with the public is missing within the church. The young clergy are in general more conservative, and the church has become more clerical. There is a demand for greater participation of the laity and especially of women....

We hope the visit of the pope will bring us closer to the Gospel, to face and correct our defects, and to meet each other with humility, a social spirit—the dialogue, the mercy, the joy and the hope that are the central themes of the message of Francis. It should help us to be more like what we were before: a church that goes forth and is close [to the people].

Many people say the pope’s visit will not be easy and faces many complications. What do you see as the major challenges he faces?
All the visits of the pope are difficult. In Chile, there is much criticism of the church. For Francis, especially, the nomination of [Juan Barros], the bishop of Osorno, is particularly difficult. There has also been criticism of the high cost of the visit. The treatment of the territorial problem with Bolivia is complex because there is an appeal underway before the International Court of the Hague, and it is good that it should proceed in total independence. There is a real problem that we all want resolved, but it is better that no country uses the pope for internal political problems—as President [Evo] Morales [of Bolivia] seems to do.

There are two major challenges. First, that the church itself really takes to heart and takes seriously what it hears from the pope. It seems that in these years it has officially accepted the message of the pope, but it has not applied it with strength in the Chilean church. Second, the challenge is to help us reposition the church in the public space, facing the main political, social, ethical and religious problems of the country with a clear, courageous, intelligible, open and dialoguing voice that is credible.

Could you describe the situation of the Mapuche today? How do they view the pope’s visit to them? How can he help them?
The Mapuche people have always had some unique traits. They did not form a state, and nevertheless they united in war with incredible courage and rejected the Inca Empire and resisted the Spanish. One of the most important epics of Spanish literature—“La Arucana”—is dedicated to them. They won in battle against two Spanish governors and through the influence, above all of the Jesuits, the Spanish crown abandoned the conquest at the Rio Biobio and recognized its territory, its sovereignty, its language and its culture. It is something without precedent in the continent.

Without a doubt, immigration is one of the great challenges of Chile. Our country is one of those that has received the most immigrants in all of the continent.

Only after the independence of Chile did the new republic invade the Mapuche territory in an unjust and invasive way, robbing these people of their land and trampling on their rights. The 19th-century liberal vision was incapable of accepting a pluralist country where different cultures could live together. Today, the Mapuche people are generally peaceful, but some groups have resorted to violence.

The church must certainly ask pardon for its silence and today give priority to re-establishing justice and defending the rights and culture of this people, and the pope can help us to have justice without violence.

Immigration is a big issue in Chile. How would you describe the issues involved? How do you think Francis can address it?
Without a doubt, immigration is one of the great challenges of Chile. Our country is one of those that has received the most immigrants in all of the continent. They have come principally from Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and, in the last few years, a great number of Venezuelans. There are no Afro-Americans in Chile, and for this reason the presence of Haitians and Colombians is significant. The Chilean legislation is antiquated and is incapable of controlling the flow of migrants. There are many abuses, and the solution of this problem is vital for progress in the country.... The pope is certainly sensitive to this reality and can help us.

The scandal of the sexual abuse of minors by clergy and Francis’ appointment of the bishop of Osorno caused many problems for him. Is this likely to be a big issue when he visits?
The abuse story has been all over the press, above all because of the case of one priest who had enormous influence in the formation of the young. Five of the bishops in the country were in formation under him, as were numerous priests. They have made two films and written many books on this case.

Among these bishops is the new pastor of Osorno, whose nomination generated enormous resistance, great division in the church and much attention in the press. The majority of the country considers his nomination an error.

How do Chileans view the visit of Pope Francis? What do people think of him?
I believe the vast majority of the Chilean people appreciate the pope and wait for him with affection.... The president of the Republic himself wrote an impressive column showing a profound interest and openness for the humanistic themes that the pope will probably develop. The issues that most concern the Chileans coincide with many of the messages of the pope, for example, the problem of the Mapuches, the problems of migrant people, care for the environment and so on. The excessive security measures, at times justified, could make it difficult for participation in the main events.

You have known Bergoglio for many decades. What special memory do you have of him? Has he changed much since he became pope?
He is an intelligent man, very close [to the people]. He is the first pope that has not participated in the Second Vatican Council, but both he and I were in formation when it was announced and when the great conciliar documents were promulgated. The ideas of the council marked us deeply: a church that goes out from its insularity, that opens its windows so that fresh air enters, that calls for dialogue with the world and for ecumenism, that goes back to the sources and re-reads the Scripture that was given little attention in the liturgy, that defines the church as a community where laymen and women, priests, bishops and the pope himself have a common vocation to holiness marked by baptism.

The Latin American reading of the council at the bishops meeting of Medellín led us to point out the existing injustice in the continent and [to insist] on the necessary option for the poor. The pope, the son of immigrants and formed in the periods of Peronism in Argentina where the people were very central, is clearly a man who is very sensitive to the poor and the marginalized.

As a Latin American, he is a man close [to the people] and down to earth. This does us much good and clears the air. He showed these qualities well when he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires and in the famous bishops’ meeting of Aparecida, which reminded Latin Americans of the spirit of the council, of Medellín and Puebla. Thanks be to God that as pope he has not lost these qualities. Up to now, I rate [his pontificate] very positively, and I think that his presence was a great gift of the Lord to the church.

What are your hopes for the visit?
I hope that we will listen to his message and not just linger with mere anecdotal things. If there is some gesture or some word that is more difficult to understand, I hope that this will not be converted into the only center [of attention] but that we go to the depth of the message that should last in a society that is rather individualistic and conflictual.

Moreover, remembering St. Augustine—who when asked by someone why the times were so bad, responded: “If the time is bad, change yourself and the times will change...because the time is you”—I hope that each of us listen in our own hearts to the message and not think only about what the others ought to hear.

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