His defining legacy was as architect of the 1985 National Accord, a pact between moderate opposition leaders and erstwhile backers of the military dictatorship, which paved the way for free elections in 1989. He was also successful as a mediator between Argentina and Chile in the 1984 Beagle Channel territorial dispute.
Fresno was born in Santiago, the fourth of five children. He studied at the city’s seminary, transferring to the Gregorian University in Rome to complete a bachelor’s degree in canon law. He returned to Chile for his ordination in 1937 and took up teaching duties at the seminary while working as a parish priest and a youth organiser.
At the age of 43, Fresno was appointed by Pope Pius XII as bishop of the new diocese of Copaipó, in the silver-mining deserts of Northern Chile, taking office in August 1958 and choosing as his episcopal motto “Adveniat regnum tuum” (Thy Kingdom Come). Promotion by Paul VI to the Archbishopric of La Serena followed in 1967, and there he made his mark in reinvigorating parish life and fostering priestly vocations.
Chilean Catholic opinion was deeply divided between left and right in the decades of the 60s and 70s, some throwing in their lot with Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity coalition and others backing the conservative forces behind the military coup that ousted the socialist government in September 1973. Fresno refrained from active engagement in secular politics, chairing the country’s Episcopal Conference from 1975 to 1977 and serving Rome’s Latin American College.
Meanwhile, Catholic activists came to the fore in the resistance to Augusto Pinochet’s junta, with the Vicariate of Solidarity becoming a trusted channel for funding and practical support to the oppressed from solidarity movements in Britain and elsewhere. Fresno’s predecessor as Archbishop of Santiago, Cardinal Silva Henríquez (1907-99), was a particular irritant to the regime and the ruling clique hoped for an easier ride under the new primate.
His appointment to Santiago coincided with an upsurge in resistance. The clandestine left mobilised major waves of strikes and even the right was inching towards an accommodation with democratic forces. Fresno nailed his colours to the mast within days of becoming Archbishop: “It is natural that differences should arise between people”, he declared, “but when we all seek to build a better world, we must seek a path and I believe that path to be dialogue.”
Made Cardinal by John Paul II in May 1985, Fresno served six years in the archdiocese and hosted the April 1987 papal visit. But the real high point of his archiepiscopate began in August 1983, when his palace was the scene for a secret meeting between opposition leaders and emissaries of the military regime. Within two years, Christian Democrats Patricio Aylwin and Gabriel Valdés, Luís Maira of the Christian Left and Andrés Allemand of the conservative National Union Movement cobbled together the National Accord for a Transition to Full Democracy. Fresno acted as honest broker in the first pact uniting a broad spectrum of Chilean political forces since the 1973 coup. To his great satisfaction, this laid the basis for the resounding “No” vote in the plebiscite of October 1988 that ousted Pinochet from office.
Fresno defined his pastoral mission as the pursuit of a Chile that would be “a land not of confrontation but of mutual understanding.” Reconciliation remains, however, more of a desideratum than an accomplished fact, so long as Pinochet eludes justice and the “disappeared” under his tyranny remain unaccounted for, their torturers and killers unpunished.
After his retirement on age grounds in March 1990, the emeritus archbishop, a former president of the NGO Cáritas Chile, lived modestly in a house behind the Dehesa parish church in the capital. Although blind and a wheelchair user, he continued to visit the sick and help in parochial work. He died from acute kidney failure.
- Cardinal Emeritus Juan Francisco Fresno Larraín, priest, born 26 July 1914; died 14 October 2004