Slum Priests: Pope Francis's Early Years

'Padre Bergoglio' once recruited clergymen to minister in Buenos Aires's poor, dangerous 'villas miserias.'
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Residents of the Villa 21-24 slum walk past the Virgin of Caacupe chapel, where then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) of Argentina used to give mass, in the Barracas neighborhood of Buenos Aires on March 14, 2013. (Enrique Marcarian/Reuters)

For Father Gustavo Carrara, a day's work might mean finding someone to accompany a pregnant drug addict to the hospital, seeking housing for a homeless orphan, or consoling a woman whose husband was killed in a narco-fueled gunfight. Carrara runs the Saint Mary Mother of the People parish, located inside Villa 1-11-14, one of Buenos Aires' largest and most dangerous slums. He was recruited personally to serve there by Pope Francis I, who was then Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

"Padre Francis, who was then Padre Bergoglio, came to me as I was working as a deacon elsewhere and asked me to work as a priest in one of the villas," explains Carrara. He knew that the job would not be easy. Far from the Buenos Aires of postcards, with its leafy avenues, sultry tango and Francophile architecture, the city's slums, or villas miserias, are so savage that even ambulances and police have refused to enter. Still, Carrara claims, "I did not hesitate."

Since assuming his post as Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998, Pope Francis I has worked to revive and fortify the Catholic movement in the villas.

Before he was elected pope, Francis I worked to expand and support the efforts of priests working in these villas. The Catholic Church has maintained a presence in Buenos Aires' slums since the 1960s, when a group called "Priests for the Third World" installed themselves in the impoverished neighborhoods preaching liberation theology and fighting for the rights of their parishioners. However, the movement had a tense relationship with the Church hierarchy and dwindled after one of its leaders, Father Carlos Mugica, was murdered in 1974 by an anti-communist paramilitary group.

At the beginning of the country's military dictatorship in 1976, two Jesuit priests working in the slums were kidnapped and tortured by the junta - a fact for which some have partially blamed Pope Francis I. Horacio Verbitsky, an Argentine investigative journalist, recently released a document which suggests Pope Francis I blocked one of the priests, Franz Jalics, from having his passport renewed in 1979, after he had fled Argentina to Germany. While Verbitsky, who was part of the leftist guerilla movement that fought the junta, admits that the document doesn't prove Francis I's complicity in the kidnapping of the priests, he claims it suggests a duplicitous modus operandi.

Many others, including academics with access to the church archives, have dismissed any such claims, and since assuming his post as Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998, Pope Francis I has worked to revive and fortify the Catholic movement in the villas. He grew the mission from 10 to more than 20 priests, arranged for the priests to live in pairs or groups instead of alone, and mandated bi-monthly meetings to foster a sense of community among the villero priests. Francis I often showed up to the city's various villas unannounced to talk with people in the streets, enjoy tea and cookies with churchgoers, and watch the priests deliver mass from a back pew. He helped find funding for certain projects in the villas and spoke frequently with the villa priests by telephone, helping them to resolve the problems of their parishes and sometimes their personal lives.

Presented by

Haley Cohen

 Haley Cohen is the Economist correspondent for Argentina and Uruguay. 

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