As with many others of his outlook, notably the murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador and Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, archbishop of Sao Paulo, his courage was seldom admired and his views seldom taken into account at the court of Pope John Paul II. His retirement from the archbishopric in 1983, tendered to the pope when he reached the suggested retiring age of 75, was accepted with indecent haste.
The Vatican was nurturing its strong relationship with General Augusto Pinochet - which, as its recent intervention on his behalf with the Prime Minister and the Archbishop of Canterbury has demonstrated, remains strong - and was happy that an irritant to that relationship was no more.
Ral Silva was born the 16th of 19 children of a poor family in the southern city of Talca. After taking a law degree in Santiago he entered the Salesian order in his mid- twenties, going on to study and be ordained in Turin in 1938, an experience which gave him an early experience of Fascism.
John XXIII named him bishop of Valparaso in 1959. He was appointed archbishop of Santiago in 1961, becoming cardinal the following year. He played a major part in the Second Vatican Council. As with most of the Chilean hierarchy he had a good relationship with the Christian Democratic government of President Eduardo Frei Montalva (father of Chile's current president Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle) who was elected in 1964 and handed over the sash of office to his constitutional successor the Socialist Dr Salvador Allende in 1970.
Many foresaw a stormy relationship between church and state after the inauguration of Allende's wobbly six-party Popular Unity coalition, not just on ideological grounds but also because of the wide difference in outlook between the undemonstrative and ascetic son of the soil and the ebullient middle-class politician, a bon vivant and freemason. The storm never came since the two men got on well, seeing in each other a shared concern for the common man and at the disgusting conditions in which Chilean society condemned millions to live. Allende, too, seeing enough threats at home and abroad, cannot have wanted the enmity of a powerful and well- organised church.
In his memoirs Silva recounted how Allende had said to him, "I can promise you, Don Ral, that I won't touch the Church, not even with a rose petal." Though there were tensions with Allende, notably about reform of education, they were overcome. "He was always prepared to talk and find a solution," said the cardinal in an interview given in 1983. During the Allende years his refusal to manoeuvre against the elected government and throw in his lot with those who were seeking its overthrow alienated him from many rich Chileans.
Silva, as many other Chileans, suffered a rude awakening when the military plotters led by Pinochet overthrew their superior officers and staged a bloody putsch on 11 September 1973.
An early experience of what things were going to be like came, for instance, when an emissary from Pinochet arrived at the Cardinal's house a few days after the coup, accompanied by an army chaplain in uniform and carrying a pistol. Ascanio Cavallo, historian of the time, recounts how the Cardinal had the following conversation with the priest:
"What on earth are you doing with that pistol in your belt, hombre?"
"Your Eminence, these are dangerous times"
"But you're a priest!"
"I'm a military chaplain, Your Eminence . . ."
"And what does that mean? Are you going to shoot with that thing? Are you going to kill somebody?"
About the same time Silva vetoed the wish of the successful plotters to have a Te Deum for the new regime celebrated in some military unit. Guided by Silva the bishops' conference angered the military by its refusal to refer to the coup as a patriotic act of national salvation.
Some of his brother bishops, however, were more enthusiastic for the putsch. One sent his bishop's ring to the junta as "a modest contribution to the work of Chile's reconstruction." A few weeks later another said in reference to the abolition of the Congress, "It's a great benefit to the country that the Honourable Governing Junta has imposed political silence for a long period."
Seeing the extent of the killings, torture, exile and other excesses Silva moved swiftly to create an ecumenical relief organisation, the Comite Pro Paz, to aid the victims. Presided over by a Catholic bishop, its leaders included Jews and Christians alike.
Pope Paul VI was fully informed of the desperate situation in Chile and was ready to move. He wrote a confidential letter to the Chilean bishops expressing his horror at the Junta's "bloody repression" but his ministers were dubious. The nuncio Monsignor Stero Sanz begged Don Ral to dissuade the Pope from publishing it.
In an uncharacteristic blunder the Cardinal went to Rome and did that, an action which he was later to regret. Two years later after the British surgeon Dr Sheila Cassidy had been comprehensively tortured by the secret police who were under the close personal control of the dictator, Silva begged Paul VI to denounce Pinochet's regime publicly but the Pope told him the time had passed.
Meanwhile Pinochet's men encouraged the Vatican to have the uncooperative Silva removed from the primacy of Chile. Parallel to that the regime made efforts to blacken his name linking him to supposed financial irregularities. The Pope had a discreet investigation made, which cleared him and subsequently gave him more Vatican money for his charitable works.
Giving the military the slip, Silva abolished the Comite Pro Paz, which the regime was threatening to close down by force, and cleverly founded a new body, the Vicariate of Solidarity, a purely archiepiscopal venture under his personal control to assist the persecuted. In 1978 its labours were recognised when the UN decided to give it its human rights award in a ceremony in New York.
That year Pope Paul died and Silva attended the conclave to elect the new pope in the midst of extreme tension between the military in Chile and Argentina over frontier disputes. Silva seized the initiative with Albano Luciani, the newly elected John Paul I, and a man with more immediate problems on his mind than the posturing of two South American dictators. As Silva made his ceremonious obeisance to the new pontiff in St Peter's he flouted protocol, bent his ear and begged him to throw the Vatican's weight against the generals as they were mobilising their armies. His action did much to avoid a bloody war in the Western hemisphere.
Luciani's successor Woytila named to the nunciature in Santiago Monsignor Angelo Sodano, whose experience of Chile dated back to the last days of the civilian government and the first of the military dictatorship. Silva had high hopes of a good relationship with the man from Head Office. Sodano, however, in an attitude characteristic of the disloyalty that many Vatican diplomats have long shown to the needs of the local church, was keener on cultivating Pinochet than on aiding Silva. Now Sodano is a cardinal himself and Vatican Secretary of State, his actions in intervening last year with the British authorities for Pinochet cannot have come as a surprise.
Silva's resignation was announced by Rome in May 1983. General Pinochet's wife Luca, ever keen to underline her and her husband's close relationship with their Maker, exclaimed, "It seems God has heard us."
Ral Silva was succeeded by Archbishop Francisco Fresno of La Serena, living quietly and keeping his own counsel. His later years were overshadowed by Alzheimer's disease.
Ral Silva Henrquez, priest: born Talca, Chile 27 September 1907; ordained priest 1938; Bishop of Valparaso 1959-61; Archbishop of Santiago 1961- 83; named a cardinal 1962; died Santiago 9 April 1999.Reuse content