Wednesday 13 December 2017

'The Slum Pope? Francis is bigger than that – he is for all the poor people'

IT'S a long walk down the teeming streets of Villa 31, one of several shanty town slums within the bounds of Buenos Aires, to the "Home of Christ" sanctuary of Father Guillermo Torre.

Flea-bitten dogs and children share the gutters and motorway flyovers replace the sky for the breeze-block homes jumbled beneath them.

Father Torre, a stocky man with a dog collar undone and askew, escorts his visitors around his domain – a church under corrugated iron, a day centre for runaways and drug addicts and, finally, the burial site of Father Carlos Mugica, a priest killed by right-wing assassins in 1974 because of his work for the poor.

It isn't Father Mugica we are here to celebrate today, but rather the man who until last week was merely Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

"He built all of this," Father Torre says of his friend who is now Pope Francis. While the leader of the church in this city, he helped find the money and provided the encouragement to build this and similar centres in the other slums – or Villas Misarios – in Buenos Aires.

All are called "Home of Christ" and Cardinal Bergoglio visited them as often as he could as part of his very public commitment to ministering to the poor.

Nowhere, not even in the other slums, is the reverence for Cardinal Bergoglio more strong than here, however.

It was back in 1999 – soon after he became Archbishop of the city – that he arranged for the remains of the still iconic Father Mugica to be exhumed from the cemetery in the nearby middle-class neighbourhood of Recoleta, where Evita is entombed, to this place for reburial, among the people he had cared and died for.

It was a day that Saul Sanchez (48) a small grocery shop owner on what might be the main street of Villa 31, will never forget.

Yesterday, he briefly abandoned his counter to run home for photographs showing him among a team of the younger men carrying the casket of Father Mugica to his burial ground. It was October 9, 1999. But if Father Mugica remains revered as the Slum Priest of Argentina, then to people here Cardinal Bergoglio can surely be called the Slum Pope.

"He is a very simple man," he says of the Pope, who used to come at least once a year to Villa 31 to give communion at a small brick shrine a few doors down from his shop and to confirm the young.

"You know it because he liked to come here and just be with us. He is just a normal person, who would eat meat and stew with us and would even drink mate." He was referring to the traditional tea of Argentina, an infusion of hot water and leaves often drank from a dried vegetable gourd through a metal straw.

As everyone here knows, only one person was allowed to brew the mate when Cardinal Bergoglio was coming. That would be Maria Picallo, who is 85, who lives at Casa 7 on Evita Street.

She was preparing dinners for the poor at the small chapel a few blocks from Mr Sanchez's shop when she heard the news of the new Pope on Wednesday. It made her dance, she said last night. The new Pope loved her for her mate, she says. He would always take bitter, no sugar.

She is also one of the lucky ones of the slum who can say she knows Pope Francis, at least a little. Dressed in layers of cardigans with a necklace of white plastic hearts and a cross, she is moved when speaking of him.

"He is always smiling," she said. "When he speaks total silence falls. Even the flies here stop when Bergoglio is talking."

Back at the sanctuary, Father Torre recalls that Cardinal Bergoglio also often visited all the other main slums, particularly Villa 21-24, perhaps the most dangerous in the city and not a place most outsiders would dare enter alone.

It was there, on Easter each year, that the archbishop would wash and kiss the feet of the most afflicted, including those with Aids.

But call Pope Francis the Slum Pope and Father Torre winces. "I would say he is something bigger than that.

"He is not just for the slums, he is for all the poor people."

And not just in this city now, but for the Catholic faithful around the world.

What's in a name? Mary Kenny

Irish Independent

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