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from issue no. 08 - 2008

Reportage. Priests and poor in Buenos Aires

The friends of Father Bergoglio

In the sixties some priests went to live among the immigrants in the shanty towns of the Argentine capital to help them in their political and social struggles. And were changed by the simple devotion of those they aimed to educate. The story of a Christian adventure that continues. With the help of the Virgin Mary and the saints

by Gianni Valente

The procession in honor of St. Pantaleon leaving the parish of Nuestra Señora de Caacupé at Villa 21

The procession in honor of St. Pantaleon leaving the parish of Nuestra Señora de Caacupé at Villa 21

The appointment is for Sunday at noon in front of Nuestra Señora di Caacupé. “Procession and mass de sanación y liberación” promised the flyer delivered even to the most dilapidated hovels in Villa 21. Initially there were more than two hundred, but many more joined in as the small procession headed by Bishop Oscar threaded the network of muddy alleys packed with crossed water pipes, threads of drooping electric wires, the burnt out carcasses of cars. On the feast of St. Pantaleon, a doctor and martyr, which falls in the middle of Argentina’s winter one needs to protect oneself from the gripe, the flu virus, from pneumonia and other seasonal illnesses. But not only that. “Let each of us look into our hearts and see what is going on”, is the invitation that Father Pepe makes during the Mass, in the square crammed beyond belief. “Let us all acknowledge that we are sinners, and that we need the Lord to heal us. For those who are sick in body and soul, for those who are worried and going through a serious problem ... We ask our mother, the Virgen de Caacupé, to help us to have the health we need in our barrio”. At the end of the Mass, the most elderly get in line to receive the anointing of the sick. So that “the Holy Spirit of forgiveness may heal us and rid us of all illness ... As St. James says, the prayer made in faith will save the sick”.
The poet Charles Péguy, thinking perhaps of the parable of the Pharisee and Publican, writes that when the rich man prays he talks, the poor man asks for things that are needed in life: peace in the family and in the world, the healing of a loved one, the health of soul and body. In the villas miserias – the favelas of Argentina, midway between slum neighborhoods and working-class neighborhoods – it is not difficult to fall ill. In Villa 21, then there is also the Riachuelo, “the filthy river, the most polluted in the world” – they say – that runs alongside, infesting the air with its miasma. Part of the Villa has arisen on the mountains of garbage of the illegal landfills, God only knows what’s under there. When every day, several times a day, freight trains cut the tangle of earth roads without seeking permission, the walls of huts tremble like cardboard and occasionally someone – mostly children caught in their street games – loses their legs. And then there are the other diseases, the ones that beset marginal agglomerations in many urban suburbs in the southern hemisphere: the chicos devastated by paco, the drug for the poor made with the residue of cocaine manufacture, the niños de la calle, the drunks who beat their wives, the thousand destinies derailed, broken families, the bankrupt lives of so many who have given up. Including those whom the economic crisis of 2001 tossed out into the street when the banks and their interest rates stole their homes.
There are a lot of people who need healing. But with all this, there is also a current of good life, a line of healing that is growing over time, in the tired and tangled days of the villeros.
“It was Father Pepe”, they all say. They say for example that since he’s been in Caacupé, Father José “Pepe” di Paola, with his friends – Father Facundo, Don Charly, the deacon Juan and all the others – people no longer kill in the streets. The Paraguayans no longer have knife fights with the Bolivians. But if you mention it to him, he will immediately dodge with his loud and contagious laugh: “We haven’t invented anything,” he says, “we’ve just taken position behind the Guaraní who today live in the Villa and the saints they brought from their villages when they arrived here in town”. From them, too, Pepe has learned that one doesn’t get much done, if you’re not in sympathy with the Virgin and the saints. And before him, Father Daniel had also learned it.

Fathers Charly and Pepe during <I>la misa de sanación</I> in honor 
of St. Pantaleon, doctor and martyr. Bishop Oscar Ojea anointing the sick

Fathers Charly and Pepe during la misa de sanación in honor of St. Pantaleon, doctor and martyr. Bishop Oscar Ojea anointing the sick

Friends in Paradise
The barrio songs tell of “el angel de la bicicleta”, the one on which he died in the early ’nineties run over by a bus. Whereas the naïf murals around the Villa portray him with arms out wide, blocking the way of the bulldozers that were razing the villeros’ homes. It was 1978, and the regime had decided to clean up the city before the World Cup. They called it the plan de erradicación. Daniel de la Sierra, the Claretian priest who built the church of Nuestra Señora de Caacupé in Villa 21, put his vulnerable body in the way as passive resistance to the violence of the topadoras. And other priests of the equipo de los curas de la villa did the same. The ones who already during the Council had chosen to settle in the Buenos Aires shantytowns that were swelling with emigrants mainly from Paraguay, Bolivia and the poor northern provinces of Argentina (Tucumán, Santiago del Estero, Jujuy, Salta, Missiones, Corrientes) to proclaim the love of Christ among los cabecitas negras, sharing in the lives of those that the rest of the city considered gente mala, dangerous vagrants, half scoundrels to stay away from.
The curas villeros were third-worldist priests, no getting away from it. They went to the Villa to testify that Christ was with the poor. They wanted to get involved with a generous stance in the low-class struggles of those years. But when they arrived, and people noticed they were priests, the requests began, “Olà Father, I have two chicos to baptize”, “when does Catechism start?”. “Is there mass next Sunday?”. “The, surprise”, wrote Jorge Vernazza, one of the pioneers, who died in 1997, in the book telling their story, “was comparable only to our ignorance about the real feeling of those people... Sometimes we would talk among ourselves of seeking an ‘authentic faith’, but we expected more from ‘evangelical think tanks’ than from traditional methods of spreading the faith... the situation of the people of the villas in which we generously and without prejudice involved ourselves, ended up opening our eyes to the richness of the devotion of the people”. So the curas villeros began building chapels with unequivocal names (Santa Maria Madre del Pueblo in Bajo Flores, Christ Obrero in Villa de Retiro, Christ Libertador in Villa 30), to minister baptisms, weddings and funerals, recite rosaries, organize processions, at the same time as working every day to support the material and socio-political demands of the villeros: commissions for water, sewers and electricity, to get a minimum of health care for the villas, organized resistance to the plans for demolition regularly set up by the various military regimes, building cooperatives, canteens. Some of them did not hide their explicit political siding with the Peronist left. In 1972, on the plane that brought Peron back to Argentina for his last fleeting return to power, there was also Father Vernazza along with Carlos Mugica, the priest martyr of Villa de Retiro, killed by paramilitary gunfire on 11 May 1974, while returning home after celebrating Mass (see box). But their immanence in the real life of the villas exposed them to misunderstandings of an opposing sort. There were those who considered them subversives in cassocks, priests contaminated by Marxist propaganda. On the other hand, even the intellectuals of the left who looked abroad for inspiration, including those of ecclesial mould, did not spare their enlightened contempt of the villeros so busy dealing with primary needs as to have no time for insurgency, and of their priests still lingering with Madonnas and rosaries, masses and confessions. “They think they’ll effect a revolution with pilgrimages to Our Lady of Luján”, some wisecracked, when in the late ’seventies the

The <I>barrio</I> cooks preparing the soup with meat and corn to distribute during the parish feast of Santa Maria del Carmen, in Ciudad Oculta, the <I>villa miseria</I> in the district of Mataderos. Cardinal Bergoglio is also with them

The barrio cooks preparing the soup with meat and corn to distribute during the parish feast of Santa Maria del Carmen, in Ciudad Oculta, the villa miseria in the district of Mataderos. Cardinal Bergoglio is also with them

New friends
From the mid-’eighties the slogan whereby one gets ahead in an ecclesiastical career changed in Latin America also. Those who argued against the theology of liberation became appreciated. In the analysis of the new ecclesial conference-paper-givers, including those who were flirting with the growing trend towards the free-market, the curas villeros were seen as a local reflection of the Catholic third-worldism that was on the way out.
But the villas, in Buenos Aires and in all the cities of Argentina, continues to exist. When the period of ferocious dictatorship ended they began swelling again, also with masses of new poor, including those produced in those recent years by the late twentieth century free-market mirage. The curas villeros continue to share the daily lives and concerns of the people they have chosen to follow. In their off-limits neighborhoods, where taxi drivers do not enter and even the police do not venture, they remain faithful to the simplest gestures of faith of their people, they continue to recite rosaries, build chapels, celebrate all the feasts of the Virgin. Almost without wanting to, they are safeguarding treasures of devotion that others seem to have lost, through a program of consciousness raising and a strategy of cultural hegemony.
“An icon in every home, a shrine at every crossroads”. Such was the idea of Rodolfo Ricciardelli for his Villa, one of the founders of the movement of Priests for the Third World, who was also one of the first members of the equipo de los curas villeros, who died last 14 July after two years of illness. We were reminded of such by Cardinal Bergoglio, celebrating his funeral in the church of Bajo Flores before the people of the barrio – children, old people, workers, old companions and the new ones also, the squad of young priests, between thirty and forty, who currently work in the villas. Those who continue to walk on the path marked out by Mugica, Vernazza, Ricciardelli, Father Daniel de la Sierra. And none are epigones nostalgic for a past ecclesial period. “Passing time makes things clearer”, says Guglielmo, parish priest at Villa Retiro, in the church of Christ Obrero where Mugica is now buried. “We can see better that even for the first ones the only criterion was the Gospel. Loving the poor living in their midst, as Jesus did. For some of them in that difficult time, that meant also becoming involved in the political struggles. But that had to do with the circumstances at the time”. Now, with the residues of ideology drained away, misunderstandings and misconceptions about the work of the curas villeros have disappeared. And providential proximities flourish. “We work in the same spirit as those who preceded us”, says Father Gustavo, parish priest at Villa Fatima: “the situations and problems are different, but what unites us with them is the most important thing: admiration and care for the faith of people and for their devotions”. After so many even ecclesial misunderstandings the bishop is with them. “Father Bergoglio”, says Gustavo, “shows in his style the preferential option for the poor. He has established many new parishes in the working-class neighborhoods. It was he who suggested to me being the priest in a villa, and he also asked other priests just out of the seminary”. Three years ago the priests of the equipo of the villas miserias were less than ten, now there are a score, almost all young. Occasionally, the archbishop leaves the curia of Plaza de Mayo and takes the metro, then jumps on some bus, and pops up in one or another of the villas to bless new canteens, celebrate christenings and confirmations, inaugurate new chapels, celebrate the feast of the saint or the Virgin to whom the parish is dedicated. Maybe he happens to stop and eat el locro with them, the soup of meat and corn they cook outdoors in large cauldrons. Meanwhile he gains fresh heart, like a father watching his children play, because “it does good to the soul to see what the Lord can do among his beloved children”.

Father Gustavo Carrara opens the small chapel of Santa Teresita 
del Niño Jesus, in Villa 3

Father Gustavo Carrara opens the small chapel of Santa Teresita del Niño Jesus, in Villa 3

Ask Saint Cayetano
At the last feast of Saint Cayetano, during the sermon, Father Bergoglio told all those who were there in front of him: some of the hundreds of thousands of Argentineans who as every year packed the outlying neighborhood where the shrine stands to ask favors from the saint of bread and work or thank him for those received. “Let me ask you a question: is the Church is a place open only for the good?”; and all in chorus: “Nooo!”. The cardinal, in reply: “Is there room for the bad guys, too?”. And the others, still all together, “Yeeees!!!”. “Do people get thrown out because they’re bad? No, on the contrary, they’re welcomed with more affection. And who taught us that? Jesus taught us. Imagine, then, how patient the heart of God is with all of us”.
In Father Pepe’s parish they see it the same way. The one thing you need to do is keep the doors open, make things easier. “Here everyone knows that one can come to the parish throughout the year and go to communion or confirmation after some catechism lessons. For baptisms, you just have to turn up a quarter of an hour before the mass”. The last time, on the feast of St John the Baptist, the adults who got themselves confirmed were more than a hundred and fifty. “The people work, desde lunes hasta sábado. You have to keep it in mind: you mustn’t impose any burden on people. We believe in the work of grace, rather than the stratagem of lengthening the preparation courses”.
It must be through the trust in grace, and the continuous “complicity” of the Virgin and the Saints, that a network of astonishing life, a sparkling whirl of facts, events, things to do, has taken root and is growing around the work of Pepe and the other young curas villeros. In Villa 21 alone, catechism for a thousand children and adolescents involved in the “movimiento Exploradores” (a kind of homemade Salesian scout group), eight comedores, the canteens where eight hundred people eat everyday, daily school help for six hundred and fifty chicos, football schools, music and sewing, homes for the recovery of drug addicts and niños who live in the street, and then, “for the most rebellious chicos, those who do not go to catechism, there is the Murga, “band” of dancers and drummers (“but we always start with an Ave Maria, and the uniform is blue and white, because those are the colors of the Virgin’s cloak”), and even spiritual retreats for groups of men and women, for families ... A network of charity overflowing and carefree, where there is always time to try something, and there is always something to be tried, to help somebody not get lost, to ask that hope be rekindled in those who seem already lost. Letting themselves be guided by what happens.
In 2001, for example, when the Argentine economy collapsed, the effects on the people of the villa were devastating. And even when things started to go better, nobody could find work anymore, not even a changa in the homes of the rich, “because no one takes those of the villas”. Pepe and his friends realized that they had to do something. So, even asking the diocese of Como for help, the school of Avenida Pepiri was set up, where five hundred kids from the villa are learning to become electricians, stone workers, mechanics, blacksmiths. And bakers, who all week prepare the bread for the comedores. Now, energies are focused on the recovery of drogacitos. At weekends, the group of men from the parish goes out of town to cheer up, between a mass and an asado, the farm where the young drug addicts who want to detox go. “It’s on the way to Luján, near the shrine,” Pepe winks, “so the Virgin also lends a hand...”.
The circuit of good life that runs through the Villa is all woven around the eight chapels with colorful murals and the dozens of wayside shrines that Pepe and his friends have scattered in the alleys and courtyards: a network of dozens of places to pray, say mass, recite rosaries. And where every opportunity is good to dedicate someone – children, men, women, old people – to the Paraguayan Virgin of Caacupé, or the Bolivian one of Copacabana, or the Argentine one of Luján, or to St. Cayetano, to St. Blaise, to St. John, or St. Pantaleon. The last time it happened was to thirty villeros couples whom Pepe had invited to a two-day retreat in the Holy House on Avenida Independencia. “There was Bishop Oscar also. We prayed, celebrated mass, spoke of sufferings and joys, and then all the couples dedicated themselves to the Virgen de Luján. Some people were moved. In the end, some couples came to ask me to celebrate their marriage in church”. Because “there are many in the Villa, couples living together for years, and bringing up their children without being married...”.

Cardinal Bergoglio greeting the faithful 
in front of the sanctuary of San Cayetano on the feastday of the saint 
of “bread and work”

Cardinal Bergoglio greeting the faithful in front of the sanctuary of San Cayetano on the feastday of the saint of “bread and work”

For a calm and quiet life
“Gracias, san Expedito, por tu milagros”, is written on a banner at the entrance of the Villa in the barrio of Zavaleta. The Roman soldier, the saint of urgent causes, the one to whom all run when time has become short and the tunnel seems a dead end, always finds new friends in the villas and throughout Buenos Aires. The miracle they ask is not the revolution, a perfect world, but a quiet life, health of soul and body, that there be work to do so as to get up in the morning, and that the kids don’t lose themselves in the black maze of drugs, where everything becomes dark. That is why, as the slogan of the parish says, “Caacupé calla, reza y trabaja por su barrio”, Caacupé keeps silence, prays and works for its district. Ora et labora. As happened more than three hundred years ago in the reducciones of Guaraní, here, too, what colors the days is not the mirage of a dream to be achieved, but the drops of daily charity that water the routine of ordinary acts and moments. The kind that silently and boundlessly without even realizing it Chula, the mother of five children, spreads around her each day as in her home, transformed into a chapel, she prepares lunches and dinner for forty children from the Villa, “because I’d promised it to San Cayetano, if my husband found work”. Or that of Pablo Ramos arrived here from Paraguay after escaping torture by the military (“but they were mixed up, we were from the Franciscan Youth, were didn’t harm anyone”), who would have liked to study architecture, but has no regrets, and gives thanks to God because in the Villa they gave him a chance to build the chapel of San Blas, and for his two chicos flamantes, his two wonderful children “who when I look at them so, give me strength and life también”.
Meanwhile, the male and female missionaries of the parish are distributing a new statuette to the huts in the barrio. They call it “el Cristo de la villa”. The young stone workers and carvers of the barrio Pepiri school made it, “after the sectarians of the Iglesia universal,” says Pepe, “had gone around slandering us, saying that we preach a dead Christ”. The image is also reproduced in the mural of the church. Jesus smiling victorious and reassuring, while crushing the head of a snake beneath his feet. His blessing hand is lifted skyward, with the arm straight, as goleadores do in the stadium when they score. “If he plays for us”, Pepe says laughing, “we’ll win the championship this year as well”.

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