Argentina priest caters to spiritual needs of poor

At the entrance to Villa Carcoba, on the outskirts of the city of Buenos Aires, sit piles of rubbish and construction waste. Perched on this pile is a group of young boys armed with homemade slingshots taking aim at the windows of a building that looms above them. All the windows are covered with bars and netting.

“This is how they pass their time,” said parish priest Jesuit Father Jose Maria di Paola, 51, who is better known to everybody — not only in this poorest of parishes but in the entire country — as “Padre Pepe.” He swings his beat-up white Fiat sedan down onto the street that leads from paved roads and grassy parks into the chaos of rutted dirt roads, roaming bands of mangy dogs and groups of loitering youth.

Pope Francis’ slums

Two years ago Father di Paola — who belongs to the group of priests of the villas beloved and supported by Pope Francis when he was archbishop and cardinal of the city — voluntarily left another slum, Villa 21-24, known as the most dangerous villa in Buenos Aires proper. This was after numerous threats against his life by drug traffickers who had become rampant in the rambling shanty town of 40,000 inhabitants, mostly immigrants from Paraguay and Bolivia.

As the economy and social conditions of neighboring countries continue to deteriorate, immigration to Argentina increases and the population and distress in these densely populated centers of poverty, family violence and drug crime continues to grow, noted the Jesuit.

Having grown up in a working-class neighborhood to immigrant parents, Pope Francis always has been close to the common people, especially to the most poor.

“Pope Francis gave a new presence to the villas,” said Father di Paola. “Before, in a sense, they had been orphaned. When [then-Cardinal Jorge Mario] Bergoglio came he gave special attention to the villas. There was not a week that we did not speak with him telling him our problems and giving suggestions.”

Funding for programs in the villas comes from international bishops’ conferences as well as some local Church funds and individual donations. Father di Paola counts as one of his successes a spiritual retreat he was able to organize for 700 men from Villa 21-24 — an almost unheard of number.

“There is the problem of addiction … but the crux of the problem is spiritual — it is an unresolved spiritual question in each person,” he said. “We have to help them find a place for their own spiritual path so they can find … a meaning to [their] life.”

A tsunami

For 14 years, Father di Paola served in the villa parish of the Virgin of Caacupe in Villa 21-24, leading a team of four other priests and numerous professionals and volunteers who worked also in three other neighboring villas to keep youths away from drugs by providing them with social activities and emotional support.

They created a home for street children as well as rehabilitation programs for drug addicts and a small farm, breaking through the state bureaucracy with little or no support from state agencies. It was only in 2009, after he and the other priests of Villa 21-24 came out with a declaration denouncing the growing drug trafficking in the villa, that threats against his life became more menacing.

Always present in the villas, the drug problem — especially with an insidiously addictive and poisonous cocaine byproduct known as “paco” — became more acute after the financial crisis of 2001, said Father di Paola, and children who had already left the world of drugs became entangled once more.

“It was like a tsunami. We’re doing OK, and we’re well-organized in relative peace and … suddenly, we were facing a huge problem,” he said, while handing out paper and magic markers to two little girls who came into his office asking for drawing supplies.

A mate gourd and thermos sit on his desk, but with people in and out of his small office at the Church of the Virgin of the Miracles, and youngsters popping into the courtyard to play soccer or volleyball, he had little hope of touching the beloved Argentine hot drink for some time.

No turning back

Many of the children and young people he had worked with and whom he calls his “godsons” were killed in the increasing drug-related violence in Villa 21-24, he said.

“In such neighborhoods, when they kill a child you raised as your godchild, there are some who get angry with God,” he said. “I can get angry, but I have the internal conviction that we have to continue because we have to be here and work for the others. I have never reached the point where I say, ‘No.’”

Father di Paola said he finds strength to continue with his work in the testimony of the Church through saints, specifically using Italian St. John Bosco, founder of the Salesians of Don Bosco, as his model.

According to social activists and local residents of the villas — those of whom were interviewed requested, for safety reasons, that their names not be used — one of the major dangers in the villas was and continues to be the corrupt involvement of local authorities such as judges and police — even reaching into the higher echelons of local politics and beyond — in the drug trade in the villas. The police are largely absent in the villas, coming only for regular payoffs from the drug lords, they charge.

“The ones we are most afraid of are the police,” said a resident of a villa. “The ones who can hurt you the most are the police, because they are the ones who control the drugs.”

Following the threats in Villa 21-24, together with then-Cardinal Bergoglio, Father di Paola decided to leave for a northern rural parish in the province of Santiago del Estero, not merely for his own safety, but for the safety of the people with whom he was working.

Villa Carcoba

Eight months ago Father di Paola was ready to come back to his work with the marginalized youth of the villas and was given responsibility over Villa Carcoba — one of the oldest slums outside Buenos Aires — and three other slums encompassing a population of 35,000.

There he found a parish much neglected, the Church of the Virgin of the Miracle open for the residents only on the weekend when the parish priest would come from outside for the Mass.

Already the Jesuit has begun to strengthen both the spiritual life of the people as well as social opportunities for the youths of the villa through vocational workshops, sports activities and camping. Soon he will begin his rehabilitation work as well. There are legal clinics and baby health clinics in place. Part of the struggle is battling the state’s bureaucratic inefficiency, he said.

At the moment he has an assistant priest and an armload of dedicated volunteers, both from inside and outside the slum, who work with him in his ministry. Though the people of the villa have received him warmly, happy for a place for their children, the drug lords have already sent out warnings against him to show their displeasure with his presence.

This has not dissuaded Father di Paola in his work.

“I see as very natural the connection between my spirituality and my action,” he said.

“There is no difference between running a food pantry and celebrating a Mass or a baptism. It is all united within my spiritual faith,” he added. “Everyone here is afraid a bit, but we know we have to resolve this and move forward. When you work in such a situation you know there are risks, but you have to assume [the work] in its totality.”

Judith Sudilovsky writes from Jerusalem.