VATICAN CITY — The Vatican on Friday defended Pope Francis from accusations that he colluded with the military dictatorship in his native Argentina, dismissing the allegations as unfounded and politically motivated.
The charge is that as a provincial head of the Jesuit order during the 1976-83 regime, Jorge Maria Bergoglio turned a blind eye to human rights abuses and, more specifically, did not protect two slum Jesuit priests from persecution by the military.
None of the accusations has ever been “concrete” or “credible,” Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said, indicating that Bergoglio had been questioned by Argentine magistrates as someone “informed of the facts” but never as a suspect.
There are testimonies to “how much Bergoglio did to protect many persons” during the dictatorship,” and, once a bishop, he contributed to the Argentine church’s decision in 2000 to seek forgiveness for not having spoken out against the regime, Lombardi said.
Therefore, the accusations “must be firmly and thoroughly denied,” the spokesman said, attributing them to “sections of the anti-clerical left-wing” in Argentina.
Earlier, Francis urged cardinals not to give in to pessimism and to pass on their wisdom to younger people, explaining that, like wine, religious leaders improve with age.
“We should never give in to pessimism and to the bitterness that the devil offers us every day,” Francis said in an audience to all the so-called princes of the Church — including those over 80, who were not allowed in the conclave that elected him on Wednesday.
“Dear brothers, perhaps half of us are in old age. Old age, I’d like to say, is the seat of life wisdom … let’s give this wisdom to the young, like wine that gets better with old age,” the 76-year-old pontiff said.
He cited the German Romantic poet Friedrich Hoelderlin, saying: “Old age is peaceful and pious.”
The pope looked in good spirits, smiling often and speaking off the cuff. However, he tripped slightly after standing up to greet the dean of the College of Cardinals, Angelo Sodano.
Before giving his blessings, Francis also paid tribute to his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
Benedict, 85, resigned last month, saying he was too old to continue in his job. It was the first papal resignation in 600 years, stunning a church beset by infighting, scandal and dwindling global appeal.
Over the coming months, Francis will be expected to renew all the top positions in the Roman Curia, the church’s governing body. Sodano said that he and his peers were “at the complete service” of the new pope.
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The pontiff is set to give an audience to the press on Saturday and deliver his first Angelus prayers on Sunday. His formal inauguration Mass will take place Tuesday in St. Peter’s Square.
Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, U.S. Vice President Jose Biden and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are among the many world leaders expected to attend the high-profile ceremony.
However, in another display of humbleness, Francis has told his Argentine countrymen not to come to Rome for the event, but to instead donate to charity the money they would have spent on the trip, Lombardi told reporters.
He also said that Benedict, who since his retirement has been living at Castel Gandolfo, about 20 miles south of Rome, will likely return to the Vatican “in the beginning of May.” He is set to relocate to a convent that is currently being restored.
Francis is expected to travel to Castel Gandolfo over the coming days to meet Benedict, whose decision to resign has raised questions as to how the Catholic Church will deal with the almost unprecedented situation of having a former pope alive alongside his successor.