A Personal Look at Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
The cynic claims that no man is thought to be great by those closest to him. The following interview, granted by Mr. Fernando Antúnez Aldunate, shows the lie of that canard.
For nearly two decades, Mr. Aldunate was privileged to work closely with one of the preeminent Catholic thinkers of the twentieth century, Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, founder and president of the National Council of the Brazilian Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, and inspiration of its brother TFPs across the globe. For 15 of those years, Mr. Aldunate, a Chilean by birth, served as Prof. Corrêa de Oliveira’s personal secretary. He now resides at the seat of the French TFP in Paris, from which he graciously answered our questions.
Crusade: When did you begin your duties as Prof. Corrêa de Oliveira’s personal secretary?
Mr. Aldunate: It was only after having assisted him in other matters that I began to work as his personal secretary, near the end of 1977. About five years earlier, Dr. Plinio had asked me to organize his personal library, but, prior to being named his secretary, the occasion for serving him more closely arose in 1975 when he suffered a serious automobile accident, after which I was able to render him certain services.
In 1977, on returning from Europe where I had been assisting the Bureau Tradition Famille Proprieté pour l’Europe, I discovered that Dr. Plinio was practically acting as his own secretary. Even for such simple clerical tasks as typing, he had to ask help from members of one sector or another of the TFP, and each time the service was performed by a different person. Needless to say, this situation belied the leftist media’s characterization of the “all powerful” leader of the TFP.
In those days, Dr. Plinio dealt with much of his correspondence in the early morning, when many of those who worked with him were still in bed. He would make notes on the papers he had to send off and leave them on the corner of his bureau. These “corner papers,” as he called them, would then be dispatch to one place or another.
The more recent growth of the TFP could well be measured in the passage from the time when Dr. Plinio was his own secretary to 1995, the year of his death, when the secretariat had grown to six persons who assisted him with correspondence.
Crusade: Was Dr. Plinio demanding in what he asked his secretary to do?
Mr. Aldunate: Naturally, he wanted the work done accurately and punctually. However, while Dr. Plinio was intransigent toward evil and its cohorts, I have never known a more understanding and edifying gentleman. He desired not only the advance of the Counter-Revolution, but the development of a school of Counter-Revolution in which every blow against the enemies of the holy Catholic Church and of Christian civilization—the cause for which the TFP fights—would be executed with the greatest perfection and diligence. In this regard, his patience was that of a saint.
Crusade: And yet, returning for a moment to your earlier comment about the leftist media’s portrayal of an “all powerful” leader, there are those, apparently influenced by such fervid fantasies, who seem to imagine that Dr. Plinio disdained questions and was intolerant of views other than his own.
Mr. Aldunate: Nothing could be further from the truth! Gentle, affable, serene, and patient with all, Dr. Plinio was particularly pleased when people raised questions—including those that appeared inconvenient to others. Nor did he resent objections. On the contrary, he encouraged them. After every one of his meetings, he would ask if anyone present wanted to offer any observation, comment, or objection. While he hoped that all within the ranks of the TFP would share his desire to be in complete accord with Catholic doctrine and have a resolute heart for the counter-revolutionary fight as set forth in his seminal work Revolution and Counter-Revolution, he never exacted an exclusionary “politically correct” way of thinking within the TFP.
Crusade: Did this openness apply to external as well as internal meetings?
Mr. Aldunate: Absolutely, and to the same degree. This was so habitual for Dr. Plinio that he would invite questions and critical comments even in the face of a hostile audience. He liked people to take advantage of the open floor in order to express any objections and clarify all doubts. The amiability he displayed toward his critics moved those in attendance to admiration.
Dr. Plinio frequently received visitors from across the globe, including journalists from the Brazilian and international media. Even those known for their hostility to the TFP would leave the interview convinced that the TFP was not the “den of fanatics” painted in the lurid pages of the tabloid press.
Dr. Plinio’s style of action reflected in contemporary terms the spirit of Christian chivalry of the Middle Ages: “In idealism, ardor; in treatment, courtesy; in action, unlimited devotion to the ideal; in the presence of the adversary, circumspection; in the fight, elevation and courage; and through courage, victory!”
Crusade: Did Dr. Plinio take breaks during the time he allocated for such work as his correspondence?
Mr. Aldunate: When it was time to work, it was work alone and without unnecessary interruptions. Dr. Plinio, however, was by no means a slave to the clock, and he had no difficulty in dealing with something unexpected that might suddenly arise, especially when it afforded him an opportunity to do good for a confrere working with him.
In a conference, Dr. Plinio once referred to work as an intense but calm activity. He worked with extraordinary serenity, in a manner quite distinct from that which dominates the contemporary workplace: frenzied bursts of agitated activity followed by intoxicated giddiness with the task’s completion.
Crusade: Did Dr. Plinio ever take a vacation?
Mr. Aldunate: Never. He occasionally said that one does not take a vacation in the service of Our Lady, nor does one take a vacation in the midst of a battle. He had a firm conviction that we are engaged in a great struggle—fighting with ideas rather than arms as our weapons, to be sure, but a combat nonetheless—in which quarter is neither asked nor given. His militant spirit, imbued with selfless dedication, inspires the members of the TFP to this day to follow the example he always gave. Wherever the battle was the most arduous, whenever the crisis was the most formidable, there you would find Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, the first to confront the enemy and the last to leave the field. Indeed, he would not rest until all was in order. He led—as do all true leaders—by the power of his example.
Crusade: But everyone needs to rest some time.
Mr. Aldunate: Of course, it is a law of nature, and, as I have already noted, Dr. Plinio had an exquisitely balanced personality. At the conclusion of some particularly prolonged and demanding enterprise, the writing of one of his momentous books, the direction of an extensive national or international campaign, or the like, he would customarily rest. Bear in mind that for Dr. Plinio a “great rest” comprised three to five days at most.
Crusade: And how would he spend those rare days of rest?
Mr. Aldunate: For one of his “great rests,” he would often go to a farm owned by friends near Amparo, in the countryside of São Paulo State. That farm later became a TFP center. On other occasions, he would stay at a hotel in Serra Negra, not far from Amparo. During the winter, in times past, he would customarily stay at the Parque Balneario, a comfortable hotel in Santos, whose coastal ambience he appreciated.
Even in these places of rest, however, Dr. Plinio would spend a good part of his time engaged in study, writing or reviewing books, planning campaigns, or other work, sometimes even conducting meetings. It was a “great rest” only because when he was away from São Paulo he was no longer constantly besieged on every side. So, he was able to sleep a little more—he slept with the peace and innocence of a child.
When dining, Dr. Plinio liked to talk with his friends at the table. He was a consummate conversationalist with a liking for elegant conversation on elevated subjects, and wherever he went an animated circle of people soon formed. Eminently expressive, he found these “causeries” (social conversation on substantive matters) rejuvenating.
For Dr. Plinio, to rest meant to contemplate, and he would customarily analyze the world around him, rejecting all that was evil and ugly, while embracing that which was beautiful and good. An extraordinary teacher, he learned lessons from all whom he encountered, including the most ordinary of men. The eyes of his preeminently contemplative soul looked beyond material accidents to see transcendental truths. Selective in the objects of his contemplation, he elevated everything to the highest principles, above all, to the First Principle, God.
Sometimes, I would find him sitting alone, utterly enchanted as an innocent child as he leafed through books illustrated with magnificent cathedrals, majestic castles, and marvelous panoramas. He also took advantage of these brief periods of leisure for reading, which he habitually commented on during his meals and, at times, after his afternoon automobile drive during which he would pray his Rosary and other daily prayers.
Crusade: What types of books did he most like to read?
Mr. Aldunate: A great reader of history, Dr. Plinio was especially attracted to memoirs, as one might imagine in reading his own literary treasures of “Ambiences, Customs, and Civilizations” published in Catolicismo, Crusade, and other journals of the various TFPs. He especially liked to read memoirs from the times of the Ancien Regime and, of course, the lives of the saints.
I remember how enthusiastic he was in reading of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, a soul of fire burning within a fragile body; and with the history of Saint Louis IX, King of France, as told by his constable Joinville. As a slave of Mary, he greatly admired the life and writing of Saint Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort, whose True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin is an incomparable spiritual classic. So many other saints, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, to name but one more, could be added to the list. The saintly always love the saints.
A favorite author was the Duke de Saint-Simon [1675-1755], the celebrated memoirist of the “Great Century.” His memoirs fill eight volumes, nearly seven thousand bound pages, which Dr. Plinio read, rapt in admiration, regretting only that there were no further pages left to read.
Crusade: If I may be permitted to satisfy a personal curiosity, what were Dr. Plinio’s favorite foods?
Mr. Aldunate: Dr. Plinio would have been pleased with your question. His mind was brilliant, but his heart was loving.
A “bom garfo”—a “good fork”—by nature, he enjoyed various pastas and sauces. From 1967 on, unfortunately, he had to follow a very strict diet as the result of diabetes, but his physicians allowed him to break this diet once a week. He would set that day aside to go to a good restaurant, if possible, to dine on pasta. He also appreciated well-prepared meats. Regarding fish, he often commented that it was a good excuse for a sauce.
From the time he was but a boy, Plinio showed an inclination for a well-set table. Thus, his sister Rosée wrote jokingly under the letter “P” in the French encyclopedia Larousse: “Plinio, fameux gastronome, il passa toute sa vie en mangeant”—Plinio, a famous gastronome, who spent his entire life eating.
Dr. Plinio, of course, spent his life fighting the Revolution, as we have already discussed, but he knew how to appreciate the counter-revolutionary sustenance of good food, a noble Catholic tradition.
Indeed, as in every aspect of life, he elevated gastronomy to a higher spiritual plane. As he once advised a somewhat perplexed listener, “One eats more with the soul than the body.” It is a sad irony that today some sacrilegiously attempt to reduce the sacrality of the Holy Eucharist to the commonplace of the family meal. Dr. Plinio, on the other hand, sought to sanctify everyday life by placing it in the service of the Divine.
Crusade: Did Dr. Plinio ever think of retiring?
Mr. Aldunate: You will recall his observation that one does not take a vacation in the midst of a battle. There was no retirement for his crusader’s heart. At 86 years of age, he still spent his days—days whose long hours would daunt much younger men—devoting all his thoughts and efforts to leading the battle to defeat the Revolution and to restore Christian civilization, its only antidote.
He did, however, have a desire to be able to pass his final days as a contemplative hermit. He confided that he hoped one day to be able to go to the “Grotto of Cornelius,” where he would meditate on the commentaries on Sacred Scripture made by the great Jesuit exegete of the seventeenth century, Cornelius à Lapidé. That day, as he made abundantly clear, could only come to pass after the fulfillment of the tragic and glorious events foretold by Our Lady at Fatima, culminating in the promised triumph of her Immaculate Heart in the glorious Reign of Mary. Of course, he was entirely disposed, without any reservation, to the will of his beloved Heavenly Mother, who called him to her side before that triumphal day.
Crusade: Did Dr. Plinio ever designate a successor? Did he intend to do so?
Mr. Aldunate: He left the TFP well structured to carry on its historic mission or, better yet, its apostolate, even with the irreplaceable loss of his presence. It must be said that defenders of the Faith of the order of Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira do not come along every day—any more than other Catholic champions like Ignatius, Francis, or Dominic, I dare say in all frankness. Inevitably, decisions must be made, directives issued, and so forth, to carry on their work once they have left this vale of tears but, in my judgment, “successor” is not quite the appropriate word in such cases.
I mentioned earlier Dr. Plinio’s kind and generous heart. He preferred to praise rather than criticize those who worked with him. Once I even presumed to ask him if, by means of such praise, he was indicating someone to succeed him. “To think this would be to know little of me, my son,” he replied. As for the rest, he confided in Our Lady. He ended his last testament, “Our Lady will provide better than I.”
Crusade: Did you accompany him on that last trip to the farm in Amparo?
Mr. Aldunate: As I mentioned earlier, the farm was one of the places where Dr. Plinio would go for a few days of rest on completion of a particularly protracted and arduous endeavor. In 1995, he wanted to go there after having completed certain works that called for his attention. He did not want to go before finishing, even though he was already greatly weakened by the cancer—of which neither he nor we had any knowledge at the time. He, no doubt, could sense that his health was severely jeopardized, but like the warrior, bloodied yet unbowed on the field of battle, he never once complained. On the contrary, his customary affection and kindness toward others seemed intensified.
Unaware of the full gravity of his illness, we thought the trip would lead to his recuperation, but his condition worsened rapidly. I remember our last lunch at the farm. Dr. Plinio dined in his bed. It was a Wednesday—he was to enter the hospital the following Friday. He looked lovingly at a picture of Our Lady of Genazzano and, in a voice whose weakness seemed to amplify the power of his words, told us that the answer to every problem could be found in her. His humble heart confessed that he must support himself on those around him, as an aged eagle supports itself upon its progeny in order to fly.
Crusade: You were present in the hospital with Dr. Plinio during his final days, weren’t you?
Mr. Aldunate: Yes. He entered the hospital in a light coma and never fully recovered, but as he had lived every moment of his life with his soul in the presence of Our Lady and honored her in every gesture—whether conscious or unconscious—one could not mistake the devotion of his heart or the nobility of his soul.
For example, while he was unable to recall the precise words, he did not neglect saying his prayers before or after meals. Suffering pains that God alone knows, he strove to pray his Rosary until the last. He treated everyone astoundingly well, however badly he must have felt. His patience was phenomenal, and everyone in the hospital ward, from the physicians to the orderlies, from the nurses to the patients, was captivated by his palpable goodness.
Crusade: Thank you for your patience in responding so graciously and openly to so many questions. One more, if I may, how do you feel looking back on those years spent in daily association with Dr. Plinio?
Mr. Aldunate: Being able to assist one of the greatest Catholic leaders of our age in some small measure in fulfilling his awesome responsibilities in the fight against the diabolic Revolution and in defense of Holy Mother Church and of Christian civilization—responsibilities he met to the fullest degree possible—was for me an incomparable gift of Providence.