The doors used to stay shuttered on Our Lady of the Miracle chapel in a shantytown on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, opening only on Saturdays for catechism classes and Sundays for a single, sparsely attended service.
Nowadays, the chapel opens early and stays late, offering everything from a safe place for kids to play soccer to packed Sunday services. It also provides a community center and spiritual home for often-stigmatized shanty dwellers, whose neighborhoods are known as “Las Villas de Miseria,” or “Misery Villages.”
“It embarrassed me to go to church,” said Sebastiana Solabarrieta, who volunteers in the chapel’s Caritas clothing bank. “Now, everyone is here.”
Churchgoers like Solabarrieta credit Father Jose Maria di Paola, pastor at the chapel, with bringing people back to Catholicism over the past year in Villa La Carcova, where evangelical groups had gained ground and problems like poverty and drugs persist.
But Father di Paola—famous in Buenos Aires as “Padre Pepe” for his work with the downtrodden and drug addicts—and his fellow “curas villeros” (shanty priests) provide an example of the “poor church” of which Pope Francis speaks, in which priests leave their parishes to provide pastoral attention to people on the periphery.
The priests have become an institution in metropolitan Buenos Aires, where former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio made them his foot soldiers in implementing his vision of a church serving society and priests being “shepherds living with the smell of sheep.”
Father di Paola identifies with the pope’s description of pastors being close to the people: He, like others in the area, lives in a wooden home with no water.
“Previously, those working in the villas came from outside. You were in a parish and you would go to the nearby villas for a visit. Now, we live in the villas,” said Father di Paola.
“The reality is that you share experiences with the people like just another neighbor. You do all the church’s work from inside the barrio, not from the outside.”
He attributes his closeness to the community as the reason for renewal at Our Lady of the Miracle, where, during a recent visit, youth goofed off while waiting for their group to gather, catechism instructors sipped mate and lawyers from nearby Buenos Aires offered pro bono legal advice.
Church members seemed to agree with Father di Paola.
“This to me was ...” said Angelica Benitez, who gestured, unable to express her amazement that a priest would live in a house like hers, but without steel security bars.
“People feel more included with Pepe. Previously they felt a little neglected,” said Romina Ledesma, a catechism instructor.
“People have been coming back to church”—including, Ledesma insisted, evangelicals—“since Pope Francis was elected and because of the priest. ... We can’t forget Pepe’s part.”
Priests have been in the villas since the first shanties were formed by people from the provinces seeking opportunities in the capital, although they weren’t always well seen by the government, in part because their presence was seen as legitimizing squatters’ activities. In 1974 Father Carlos Mugica, whom Father di Paola considers an inspiration, was murdered, presumably by an anti-communist group, after celebrating Mass.
Pope Francis acted out of genuine concern for the poor, although the presence of priests in the villas has achieved other objectives, such as slowing the growth of evangelical groups, Father di Paola said.
Read more by HS News Staff →