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.
Father Juan Isasmendi, 32, one of four priests that works in Villa 21-24, says, "He was always very accessible. You would call his cell and sometimes stay
on the phone for 10 minutes, sometimes 20 minutes, and sometimes two hours, just chatting and joking around. He has a very good sense of humor."
While most within the villa priests doubted that their Archbishop would be elected, Isasmendi claims he had an intuition. But he adds, "Even though I
sensed it would happen, I couldn't believe it did."
In the election of Pope Francis I, the priests of the villas received a powerful confirmation of their work, which consumes most of their lives. Most villa
priests work 7 days a week, rising early to pray before attending to their parishioners needs, sometimes working until midnight or later. Like priests in
common parishes, they hear confessions, administer communions, baptize children, and oversee funerals. But the unique context in which they work presents
unique challenges as well. Many of their parishioners are unemployed and hungry, relying on church soup kitchens for their survival. Teenage pregnancy is
rampant. Paco, a cheap, highly addictive, smoke-able cocaine by-product has ravaged the villas, seducing its inhabitants and forcing violent crime levels
up. In response, many of the priests have started rehab centers in conjunction with their parishes, frequently circling their neighborhoods on the look out
for possible patients.