Remembering St. John Paul II’s controversial 1987 pilgrimage to Chile

Now is an appropriate time to recall that historic visit and the role that John Paul II and the Chilean bishops played in Chile’s peaceful transition to democracy, as well as clarify some misconceptions about that pilgrimage.

Pope John Paul II at a Papal Audience in July 1985 in St. Peter's Square. (© James G. Howes/Wikipedia)

From January 15 to 18, Pope Francis will be paying a pastoral visit to Chile. This is the first papal trip to the South American country since Pope St. John Paul II’s 1987 pilgrimage. Now is an appropriate time to recall that historic visit and the role that John Paul II and the Chilean bishops played in Chile’s peaceful transition to democracy, as well as clarify some misconceptions about that pilgrimage.

In 1970, the Marxist doctor Salvador Allende was elected Chile’s president, although he had won only 36.2% of the vote (according to Chile’s constitution at the time, a plurality rather than a majority was sufficient to emerge victorious in presidential elections). Chile’s bishops were highly critical of Allende’s slide towards socialism and increasingly friendly relations with communist regimes.

On September 11, 1973, a coup replaced Allende with the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet and Allende committed suicide. During Pinochet’s rule, many dissidents were jailed or tortured; thousands of Chileans were killed or disappeared. Meanwhile, income inequalities increased and unemployment reached 20 percent by 1982-1983.

In 1976, Cardinal Raul Silva Enriquez, the then-archbishop of Santiago known for his outspoken defense of human rights, started an organization called the Vicariate of Solidarity, whose headquarters were in the Santiago cathedral. The organization provided lawyers to represent victims of the regime who practiced non-violence and documented the junta’s human rights abuses. According to Jacobo Timmerman’s book Chile: Death in the South, in a 1984 poll the Vicariate of Solidarity and the Catholic Church were the two most trusted public institutions in Chile.

On April 1-6, 1987, John Paul II visited Chile. The slogan of the pilgrimage was El amor es más fuerte (“Love Is Stronger”). The purpose of the pope’s visit was to reconcile a divided Chilean society, and it was clear right from his flight from Rome to South America that he would be a messenger of peace in Chile. During an in-flight press conference, when asked if he hoped his visit would help to restore democracy to Chile, John Paul II replied: “Yes, yes, I am not the evangelizer of democracy, I am the evangelizer of the Gospel. To the Gospel message, of course, belongs all the problems of human rights, and if democracy means human rights it also belongs to the message of the church.”

That the pope would be on the side of those working for a nonviolent return to democracy in Chile should have been clear to any attentive Vatican watcher. In October 1979 in St. Peter’s Square, just a year into his pontificate, John Paul II appealed for the disclosure of information about missing political prisoners in Chile and Argentina, then both ruled by right-wing military dictatorships.

Arguably the pope’s most significant contribution to the restoration of democracy in Chile took place on April 2, during his meeting with General Augusto Pinochet. According to George Weigel’s authoritative biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope, during this meeting Pinochet asked John Paul II: “Why is the Church always talking about democracy? One method of government is as good as another.” John Paul’s response was: “No. The people have a right to their liberties, even if they make mistakes in exercising them.” These words must have had a major impact on Pinochet, as according to the book Why He Is a Saint by the postulator for John Paul II’s cause for canonization, Monsignor Sławomir Oder, the pope’s personal friend said: “I received a letter from Pinochet in which he told me that, as a Catholic, he had listened to my words, he had accepted them, and he had decided to begin the process to change the leadership of his country.” By October of the following year, Pinochet organized a plebiscite asking the Chilean people if they wanted Pinochet to extend his rule by another eight years or if they wanted a return to civilian rule. They chose the latter option.

While John Paul II’s conversation with Pinochet was private and took place behind closed doors, throughout the visit, John Paul gave many public expressions of his support for the restoration of democratic civilian rule in Chile. The same day the pope met with young people in the Estadio Nacional, the National Stadium, which although intended for sporting events was used by Pinochet’s dictatorship to detain and torture political prisoners. The pope was himself very conscious of the symbolism of this stadium, which he called “a place for competitions, but also one of pain and suffering.”

On April 3, John Paul publicly hugged Carmen Gloria Quintana, a nineteen-year-old former engineering student who had fled Chile for Canada after her face had been deformed as a result of burns caused by the military in an anti-Pinochet street demonstration in Santiago, thus making her a symbol of the regime’s cruelty, and told her to work for justice. Many opponents of the dictatorship felt that the pope was on their side as a result of this gesture.

That same evening, John Paul II beatified the Chilean Carmelite Teresa of the Andes (who has since been canonized) at a Mass in Bernardo O’Higgins Park in Santiago. Pro-regime thugs tried to disrupt the ceremony by starting a riot. The police responded with water cannons, tear gas, and violence; about 600 rioters and police were injured. Yet the pope persisted and celebrated the Mass right through the very end.

After that Mass, John Paul II met with the political opposition to the Pinochet regime in the papal nunciature in Santiago. Pinochet really did not want this meeting to occur, but John Paul II made it a conditio sine qua nonfor his visit to Chile. From April 4 to 6, John Paul II visited smaller cities in Chile.

Although by now it should be clear that St. John Paul II and the Chilean Church played a leading role in the collapse of the Pinochet dictatorship, John Paul’s critics have accused him of being too chummy with Pinochet. The reason for this is that after the April 2, 1987, meeting between John Paul II and the Chilean dictator, the two stepped onto the balcony of La Moneda Palace, Chile’s presidential residence, to take a picture and greet throngs of Pinochet supporters. In his book All the Pope’s Men: The Inside Story of How the Vatican Really Thinks, liberal Catholic journalist John L. Allen, Jr., writes: “When John Paul II visited Chile in 1988 [sic], for example, he administered communion to then-president Augusto Pinochet, and appeared with him on the balcony of Moneda [sic] Palace to the cheers of Pinochet supporters. The imagery scandalized some human rights activists, given that 3,191 people were confirmed either killed or disappeared under Pinochet’s regime, while unofficial estimates put the total at several times that number.”

Not only does Allen make two factual errors in one sentence, but he also leaves out a very important part of this story. In the 1980s, General Pinochet was an international pariah, and so the prospect of making the pope – and a very popular, charismatic pope at that – appear to support his regime must have been tempting. The late Cardinal Roberto Tucci, SJ, the scheduler of many of John Paul II’s pilgrimages, has said that Pinochet tricked John Paul II by changing the course of their walk through La Moneda. John Paul II had no idea that Pinochet was leading him into the balcony. In Tucci’s words, “Wojtyła was very critical of the Chilean dictator and did not want to appear next to him.”

Perhaps not since the Counter-Reformation has a pope had as much impact on secular politics as St. John Paul II. By far the best-known example of his political influence was his 1979 visit to his native Poland, which played a crucial role in the formation of Solidarity one year later, a development that was an important factor in the collapse of the Soviet evil empire. However, John Paul II’s political influence wasn’t limited to his native land. He was a polyglot and studied many world cultures and had friends among bishops on all the continents. Nor did his Polish experience make him so obsessively anti-communist that he was blind to the crimes of anti-communist dictatorships, as some have charged; John Paul II knew perfectly well that Marxism was a destructive ideology based on anthropological lies, but he also opposed regimes that used anti-communism as an alibi for human rights abuses. The pontiff’s 1987 visit to Chile makes this abundantly clear.

(Note: The original posting of this article described Monsignor Sławomir Oder as the “dictator’s personal friend”; that has been corrected to “pope’s personal friend”.)

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About Filip Mazurczak 71 Articles
Filip Mazurczak is a historian, translator, and journalist. His writing has appeared in First Things, the St. Austin Review, the European Conservative, the National Catholic Register, and many others.


    • John Allen is the maistro des Papbiles!

      It doesn’t say whether or not there was an emotional reaction to being tricked, as when Kim Davis, the Kentucky County Clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, was received by Pope Francis.

  1. I can appreciate Filip Mazurczak defending a Polish pope, nevertheless a great pope and great saint who nevertheless was not free from oversight in political affairs. Pinochet in a way is correct that democracy isn’t the only form of valid Govt. Am’s devastatingly foolish policy of regime change in the Iraq, Egypt [we supported a despotic Islamist Morsi and have opposed El Sisi a military Junta despot who did more for liberty and rel freedom than Morsi] Lybia. John Paul II supported Solidarity yet neglected to support the Liberation Theology priests who could have modified and been correctly directed exactly as he did a strident prone to violence Solidarity. “The Catholic bishops under the leadership of Archbishop Silva Henriquez called for the military to step in to restore order. The Church, however, did not anticipate the level of violence of the coup that began on September 11, 1973, under General Pinochet. Responding to the many outcries against human rights violations by the military, the Church hierarchy published Evangelio y Paz in 1975. This encyclical letter identified some of the most basic human rights that must be respected as a precondition for peace in any society, such as the right to life and bodily integrity. In this document, however, the bishops were careful to express their appreciation to the military for taking over and combating the rise of Marxism” (The Political and Social Strategy of the Catholic Church in Chili, Joleen Codner Lehigh U 1999).

  2. “No. The people have a right to their liberties, even if they make mistakes in exercising them.” – !?
    What liberties? Liberties to do what? A pope should better say that people indeed have a right form their Creator, and so the same right should be given to them from the state too, the right to have liberty (no liberties) to praise the Lord which means a.o., to live according His Holy Will and His commandments.
    Even when you talk to greatest dictator, I think, if you are a simple pew sitter but much more if you are a pope, you should never promote democracy, but Christocracy! Especially not democracy with such obvious secularist (pure political talk) words as above.
    Sadly, the Zeitgeist, and the VCII turning point of the Christocentric Church into a human-centric Church was visible in many ways, even at pope IPII.
    Is than strange also the fact that the Vatican with its politic since 1984. was nothing less than officially promoter of the secular states. Actually, they were not just promoters, but they forced certain Catholic states to renounce being Catholic but to become secularists (ie the state of unbelievers). See for example Italy and Colombia … But there are more of course!
    You may find this interesting read too.
    “Dignitatis humanae” in practice – alteration of Lateran treaties
    and secularization of Italy! (1984.)

  3. “According to George Weigel’s authoritative biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope, during this meeting Pinochet asked John Paul II: “Why is the Church always talking about democracy? One method of government is as good as another.” John Paul’s response was: “No. The people have a right to their liberties, even if they make mistakes in exercising them.”

    1. The people have a right to their political liberties, if they are qualified to hold them. 2. This does not mean that a liberal democracy at the scale of the nation-state is necessary is the best or only means of satisfying (1).

    And this is the problem with popes voicing opinions about political issues, because there is no guarantee that their moral theology concerning political order and community, and the judgments issuing from it, is correct, as none of this falls within the Deposit of Faith as such.

  4. Pinochet was one of the great heroes of what was left of Christendom. He ranks in the “hall of fame” of Franco and Salazar. Does anyone seriously believe that, if Allende had not been taken out, there would have been fewer deaths and fewer instances of torture? It simply would have been a different cast of victims (bishops,priests, religious, devout Catholics and conservatives).
    Pinochet bought some time for a Catholic revival but, unfortunately, the Chilean bishops and the Vatican decided to use that time to align the Church with antinomian and agnostic “democracy”. Same as in Spain and Portugal.

    • I was mentored by a Chilean who had to escape from Allende’s oppression. He was a piano technician who advised me not to go into that line of work. “Bakeries and Hospitals. When times get bad, people eat more bread and go to the hospital more.”

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