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Pope Francis launched sainthood process for Argentine priests

Pope Francis, then known as Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio, urged the beatification of martyred Argentine priests. A colleague says they "weren't killed because of their ideology or politics but because they preached the gospel of life in a time when life was being threatened."

By Almudena CalatravaAssociated Press / April 9, 2013

From arsenal to art: This sculpture centers a cross around a bullet fired during the 1976 San Patricio church massacre, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, when gunmen murdered three priests and two seminarians. They are now being considered for sainthood — a position advocated by Pope Francis when he was the archbishop of Argentina.

Victor R. Caivano / AP

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Buenos Aires, Argentina

It was time for Mass, but no one opened the church door.

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When a teenager climbed through a window to investigate, he found five bloody bodies, face-down on the floor in their living quarters. Police officers had stormed into the San Patricio church after midnight on July 4, 1976 and shot to death three priests and two seminarians — the bloodiest single act of violence against the Roman Catholic Church during Argentina's brutal dictatorship.

Now Catholic officials in Argentina are working to have them declared saints. And the archbishop who promoted their cause will have the last word, as Pope Francis.

"This parish has been blessed by the presence of those who chose to live not for themselves, but to die so that others may live," then-Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio said in 2001 during a service marking the 25th anniversary of the killings of the Pallottine churchmen.

What became to be known as the San Patricio Massacre is a searing example of the strains within the Argentine church where Bergoglio spent his entire career. In all, 18 priests, 11 seminarians and about 50 Catholic lay workers would be killed or made to disappear as death squads sought to eliminate left-leaning activists during Argentina's "dirty war."

Bergoglio himself was accused of not doing enough to protect two of his priests as a young Jesuit leader during the 1976-1983 dictatorship. But he also saved others inside church properties before ushering them into exile using false identities, at a time when top church officials were publicly aligning themselves with the junta leaders.

"The killings were a milestone ... The message that everyone got from the church's higher levels was: 'Be afraid because if anyone from any community criticizes this government, all might be targeted.'" said Francisco Chirichella, a layman who is gathering documentation to justify their martyrdom, a key step toward sainthood.

The slayings occurred in the capital's upscale Belgrano neighborhood just three months after military officers seized control of the government and intensified a crackdown on people they suspected of being "subversives."

The army announced that "subversives" killed the priests, despite evidence they were shot in revenge for the bombing of a police station that killed 20 federal police officers two days earlier.

Privately, the Vatican's top diplomat in Argentina, Pio Laghi, told U.S. Ambassador Robert Hill that he and the country's top cardinal had learned that police officers killed the priests, and that that a top junta official had warned him that the government intended to "clean up the Catholic church."

Laghi feared that the murders "may presage a wave of right-wing terror worse than anything we have seen before," Hill wrote in a secret cable to Washington that July 8. "Embassy is inclined to agree."

But in public, top church officials seemed to bow down before the junta leaders, saying they had full faith in their false claim that violent leftists were responsible.

"The government and the armed forces share our grief and, we dare say, our astonishment," the church statement said. "We pray to the Lord to guide Your Excellencies so you may achieve the honorable and noble responsibilities of your work."

Years later, witnesses emerged naming various suspects as the gunmen, and a military document surfaced describing the killings as unauthorized but justified. But the case stalled until amnesty laws applied, and no one has ever been prosecuted.

At first glance, San Patricio seemed an unlikely target. None of the three priests were members of the far-left Movement of Priests for the Third World.

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