19 July 2017 | by Jimmy Burns

A large poster of a smiling Pope Francis, taken not long after he was elected in March 2013, covers a door leading into a large, uncluttered, chapel in the heart of La Carcova, a shanty town in one of the sprawling suburbs of Buenos Aires. In the richer residential neighbourhoods, popular iconography of the first Argentinian Pope is less in evidence.

More than four years since his election, although most Argentinians, Catholic and non-Catholic, still celebrate Pope Francis’ style and message as a blessing, enthusiasm has dimmed in some sectors of the population. A poll published in the mass-circulation Clarin newspaper in March last year suggested that his popularity had dipped to its lowest point, of 75 per cent. A recent poll taken in Buenos Aires and its province lifted the figure to 82 per cent. However, this was still lower than the approval ratings of well over 90 per cent that he enjoyed in the first months after his election.

The fact that a global spiritual leader is a fellow countryman was always bound to be a refreshing experience, as well as a source of genuine pride, for a country that previously counted football stars – Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi – as its most popular international exports.

Francis’ many admirers see a reassuring familiarity in the humility that characterised Jorge Bergoglio’s years as their archbishop and his devotion to the poor and those on the “peripheries”. They have warmed to his readiness to reform the Church and to open up the discussion of controversial issues. However, he also faces criticism.

Politically conservative and traditionalist Argentinian Catholics see him as too radical and as unsound in theology. Over dinner in fashionable restaurants, they whisper about his reliance on instinct and charisma, like his childhood political idols, General Juan Perón and his wife, Evita. Social media is sometimes excoriating.

More measured doubts are aired in conservative parishes or in informal conversations at which government officials or business executives are present. Occasionally, a sceptical journalist or politician gingerly advances their views in public, as did Elisa Carrio, a conservative Catholic ally of the current centre-Right government of President Mauricio Macri.

After Milagro Sala, an indigenous community activist in northern Argentina, was arrested last year on charges of fraud, extortion and illicit association, Carrio described Francis’ gift of a rosary to her as a “grave error of judgement”. As Jose Maria Poirier, editor of the Catholic magazine Criterio, commented: “The waters are rather divided. There seems to be two perceptions of the Pope Francis: an international, and a national one – and they are very different.”

Concern that Pope Francis is being unwittingly drawn into Argentina’s politics as the nation gears up for mid-term congressional elections in October recently led Jorge Lugones, Jesuit bishop of the densely populated Buenos Aires diocese of Lomas de Zamora, to lament that Francis “was so valued and loved around the world yet so questioned in his own country”.

However, no one questions Pope Francis in La Carcova’s chapel of Nuestra Señora del Milagro, at the heart of a community of 30,000. His poster looms large near a simple altar with a cross, a statue of the Virgin of Lourdes and portraits of St Don Bosco, Blessed Oscar Romero, and Carlos Mugica, an Argentinian liberation theology priest shot dead in the early 1970s by a right-wing murder squad while celebrating Mass.

When the chapel is not being used for services, it doubles up as basketball mini-stadium. Nearby, a smaller space is set aside for private prayer and contemplation – a “Lourdes chapel”, shaped as a grotto, with a fountain pouring holy water. But the main activity is focused on the communal centre, with its two small classrooms.

Now in his early fifties, Fr Pepe – who Bergoglio once described as “a man of God that does a lot of good for one’s soul” – retains an extraordinary youthful energy and charisma. His unkempt long black hair and beard, scruffy casual clothes and loose clerical collar make him look as if he had just stepped out of a Passion play. “We still have too many priests who see their mission as following a career path to the hierarchy, and bishops who read and study too much but are not in touch with the people,” he tells me.

At the heart of Francis’ “theology of the people” – which combines a deep respect for the popular religiosity of the poor with a drive for social justice – is a sort of sanctified Peronism, the movement that has dominated Argentinian politics since the 1950s as an idealised force for good, but which its critics blame for the country’s failures.

Refusing a political label, Fr Pepe remains hugely loyal to Pope Francis, who as his archbishop encouraged him and other priests to fan out from the more comfortable parishes and live on the margins of society. The idea was to establish the presence of a caring Church in areas of the city that were dominated by drug cartels and corrupt politicians.

As Fr Pepe drove me through the shanty town, workers sent in by the local Peronist mayor were laying tarmac for the first time in some of the streets. “You can tell elections are coming up when token road repairs take place. There are mid-term elections in October, and local mayors are lobbying for votes,” Fr Pepe explains.

Other streets remained abandoned, their inhabitants living in huts made of sheet iron and wooden planks surrounded by uncollected rubbish and overlooking a putrid canal filled with rusting, stolen cars. Among the debris, a new two-storey brick building stood like an outpost. Pepe identified it as one of the youth drug rehabilitation centres that his community group had helped set up.

Fr Pepe invites me to the Friday meal “in community” – a biblical fare of fish, bread and wine, attended by volunteers, among them Adriana, a close friend of Pope Francis from his early days as a bishop, and Maria Ines, one of his nieces.

A sense of community and peace pervades the scene as Fr Pepe blesses the meal, surrounded by an assured lay presence that cuts across hierarchies and proclaims a collegiate church and a living faith.

“The Pope is an Argentinian, he is the first Pope we have, and Argentinians feel his first duty should be to them not to the rest of the world. We feel he belongs to us,” Adriana says. Maria Ines says the Pope is a victim of the media and of social networks that want to sow division where it does not really exist. “Uncle Jorge is much too much his own man to be swayed ideologically or subject to political influence,” she says.

The comments contrast with those I hear later in central Buenos Aires from a former pupil of Pope Francis, the Jesuit-educated Miguel Angel Toma. A former Peronist minister and chief of intelligence, Toma tells me that, despite his charisma and moral authority, there is a real risk that a visit by Pope Francis to Argentina would fuel divisions between Left and Right and rich and poor, as the Government faces growing protests against its neo-liberal economic policies.

It was partly as a result of his wish to avoid division in his own Church that Pope Francis last September publicly congratulated the bishops of Buenos Aires for accurately explaining what Amoris Laetitia had taught and for capturing its full meaning. “There are no other interpretations,” he said of their guidelines, which spoke of an invitation to divorced and remarried couples to “a process of discernment accompanied by a priest”.

Somewhat less ambiguous, in the eyes of Pope Francis’ critics, was the current head of the Argentinian episcopal conference, Cardinal Mario Poli, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, when he made public his concern about chronic poverty, high levels of unemployment, drug trafficking, and corruption – all issues that the bishops’ conference often addressed when Bergoglio led the body for more than a decade.

Fr Pepe is adamant that the sooner the Pope comes to Argentina the better. He feels it is beginning to look like an insult that Pope Francis has yet to return to his people, when Pope St John Paul II and Benedict XVI each visited their respective homelands shortly after being elected.

“Stuff the politicians on both sides. He needs to do what he did when he was archbishop, he needs to take his message over the head of the politicians, directly to the people. He needs to come here,” says Fr Pepe.

While Pope Francis cannot count on the unconditional support of his own countrymen as John Paul II could, his impact on the politics and the local Church in Argentina is potentially considerable. Round the table in Fr Pepe’s kitchen, the view of the majority is that that they will see him back home as Pope before the end of next year.

The people of La Carcova are waiting for Jorge Bergoglio’s return, like the faithful waiting for Easter and the Resurrection. But it is with hope more than certainty.

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  1. My parents lived in the Argentina of Juan and Evita Peron. My mother was raised in the Italy of Benito Mussolini. I can attest to the fact that it is inaccurate to say “Mussolini’s Italy”, or “Peronist Argentina”. Both of them vary in different time periods. Mussolini started out as anticlerical socialist, and gradually moved to accept the Church and love Her. Father Padre Pio had once said in an interview that he is in heaven. Juan Peron was a general and started his Peronist movement as an alternative to Marxism and Communism. He respected his nation and his Church. His wife Evita was a bit unhinged, and more opportunistic with her appeal to the masses. It was Evita who made Peronism more populist. Nevertheless, she was not anticlerical and worked within the Church’s understanding of social justice of pre-Vatican II. Peron has been faulted as having made his enemies disappear. But his main adversaries were Communists and Marxists. Later with the death of Evita, Peron started to lose popular support that was able to appeal to the masses over the money and propaganda machine of large globalist and masonic interests. He sought to gain popular support by attacking the Church. He legalized divorce and demanded the Church canonize Evita. This caused a division with Peronism. Today, Peronism has many wings. And to speak of Peronism is to speak of a fragmented political movement … or a movement that has no clear agenda. Only cliches and banal speeches and talks directed against opponents, but never formalizing a specific agenda or platform for fear of alienating this or that political wing of the party. This is exactly what Bergoglio is doing. He cannot crystalize an exact plan of action. He wants to “mess things up” and see what happens.

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