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Brazil cardinal recalls battles with curia; Arns stood up to despots, but dealing with Rome tried his soul. (World).

Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, the former archbishop of Sao Paulo, Brazil, turned 80 last September and marked the occasion with the publication, in Portuguese, of his autobiography, Da Esperanca a Utopia, which translates as "The Hope of Utopia." (It is published by Editora Sextante.) Recently, Margaret Hebblethwaite, British writer and occasional NCR contributor, was in Brazil and spoke to the cardinal about the book. Her account of that conversation follows:

In Brazil the book has drawn headlines for its presentation of the pope as prisoner of the curia. The principal evidence for this was the story of the late 1980s break-up of Arns' archdiocese, leaving him with only one-fifth of the original territory, which prompted him to get on a plane straight to Rome, where John Paul assured him: "I do not want the division."

Arns begged the pope to telephone the cardinal responsible, and tell him so, but the pope insisted, "I never telephone." Instead he asked Arns to go to see the cardinal, with the message that the division was against the pope's will. However, the cardinal responsible refused to see Arns, who was left writing him notes, which were never answered.

Back in Brazil, when the division was confirmed, he lamented ineffectively to the papal nuncio, the Vatican representative. "It's a great pity, because it's against the will of the pope." Arns, who courageously defied a bloody Brazilian dictatorship for 21 years, now says the division of his archdiocese was "the saddest chapter of my life as archbishop under Pope John Paul II." The division of the archdiocese took place in 1989.

I pressed Arns on his point that the curia might not always carry out the pope's will, suggesting he might be letting the pope off too lightly. After all, John Paul is the person who appointed curia members and keeps them in place. Did he not think the pope had made bad appointments?

"Yes,'I think so, I think so," Arns said, adding an explanation, which had been suggested to him by a Polish priest, who noticed in Rome the same pattern he had observed in Krakow. John Paul makes appointments intuitively and rapidly, and once made, he loyally defends his man to the end. It would be out of character for the pope to sack one of his appointees.

`Never one word against me'

Local book reviewers have tried to talk up Arns' evident preference for Pope Paul VI over John Paul II. However, while it is true that there was a special empathy between Arns and Paul VI (who appointed him to Sao Paulo in 1970, and made him cardinal in 1973), Arns defends the present pope. "He never said anything against me, never, never. Never one word against me."

Indeed when the pope was given a sheet of accusations against Arns to discuss with him during one of their meetings, he threw it on the ground and refused even to read it, Arns told me. Arns asked him then to sign an affirmation that "the cardinal has answered all the accusations against him," and the pope did so. On that occasion, at least, John Paul seemed to have escaped the shackles of the curia.

Arns' most interesting response during our interview was to a question about women's role in the church, if only for the way he tried to elude it. All journalists submit their questions in writing in advance, and while we were discussing the curia he turned over the page, as though there had been no further questions on that side. When I realized what he had done, I respectfully recovered the dropped page and drew his attention to the last question, which concerned women's ministries, specifically the diaconate, the priesthood, the episcopacy and the office of cardinal.

"Christ preferred to reveal the most important fact of Christianity -- which is the resurrection -- to a woman," said Arns, "and through a woman to St. Peter. That is for all history a sign that we must trust women, and not only trust the chief of the church," and he slipped the top sheet underneath. Good stuff, but it fell short of answering the question.

"You did not want to answer this?" I persisted.

He began with a surprising claim about Paul VI, but rapidly slid off the subject again: "I think that Paul VI wanted to accept women religious for the diaconate and also for the priesthood. But when he asked the bishops of the world if they would approve the ordination of married men, they decided against."

And he was off, talking about the ordination of married men, not of women.

In the end, Arns' most lasting achievements are not in the troubled waters of church politics, but as a prophet of justice in the world. The interview would not be complete without asking the cardinal his opinion of the Sept. 11 terrorist acts and the war against Afghanistan.

On Sept. 11, Arns was in Campinas, visiting the family of the mayor of the city, who had been murdered the previous day. Arns was watching television in the archbishop's house when live photos were seen of the twin towers' destruction. "My frank opinion is that it was the most terrible scene I could experience in my life. I never thought it could be possible to have something like this in our history. I would say in Portuguese that it was something diabolical."

Arns had two criticisms of President Bush's response. "The first was that the president did not go to the United Nations to seek the opinion of everyone. He went alone to the most important governments of the world. I felt this showed a lack of world sensitivity."

War not the solution

Second, Bush responded to the attack with a war against Afghanistan, when "you don't know who did it. It's a war against a nation when one man or two or three or 10 are responsible." The war, he suggested, was "approved by the [American] people because the people wanted something done, something, but it was certainly not the best thing to do against the terrorism in the world. It was not the solution and is not the solution."

Did he think the United States was prone to act in a bullying way? "Yes. Always preparing for war, but they must prepare for peace and not war." On the 20 or so occasions he has visited the United States he has found "such a peaceful people, such a good people" that he cannot believe they really want the war against Afghanistan, he said. "They certainly would help the president to go another way, a peaceful way."

Now that he is more than 80, Arns will not be part of the conclave that will elect the next pope. Though he denies the widespread rumor that he has Parkinson's disease, he cannot disguise the tremors of old age. He admits, too, that the cancer in his left eye, which blighted his last year as archbishop of Sao Paulo, is coming back. But his witness to what can be achieved by free speech, both within the church and under a repressive government, is a light that will not be put out. His book -- especially if it finds an English-language publisher -- will be just one more way of ensuring that.
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Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:3BRAZ
Date:Apr 5, 2002
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