Neighborhood priests in Argentina decry Milei’s attacks on Pope Francis

Over 70 clergy celebrated an open-air mass in response to insults by the far-right candidate who called the pontiff an imbecile, a communist and satanic

Sacerdotes en el escenario para la misa al aire libre dedicada al Papa, en la villa 21-24 de Buenos Aires, el 5 de septiembre.
Priests celebrate an open-air mass dedicated to the Pope; Buenos Aires; September 5, 2023.ENRIQUE GARCIA MEDINA

At the end of a street in one of Buenos Aires’ largest neighborhoods is a church with white walls and “Our Lady of the Miracles of Caacupé” written in blue cursive letters above the front door. This is where over 70 priests from low-income neighborhoods around Argentina stood up to presidential candidate Javier Milei and defended Pope Francis against his derogatory remarks that at various times called the pontiff an imbecile, a communist and a representative of the evil one. They expressed their love and support for the Pope during an open-air mass, to send a message that the entire Church stands by him.

The streets quickly filled up while Father Lorenzo Toto De Vedia of the Caacupé church directed people and gave out hugs. They congregated in front of a raised altar, as the sound of drums echoed through the unpaved streets lined with modest homes. “Wave your flags, everyone!” shouted De Vedia. On another street parallel to the church, a large banner proclaimed, “Solidarity with the Pope and the poor.” The people shouted cheers for the Catholic Church and Pope Francis.

Argentine Catholics celebrate a mass in support of Pope Francis.
Argentine Catholics celebrate a mass in support of Pope Francis.ENRIQUE GARCIA MEDINA

The three-piece band on stage began a song that everyone knew. “Take life as it comes / and to the one without hope / let’s give him the strength to live.” Waving his uplifted hands, De Vedia sang along. “Let’s make room / in the big family / take life as it comes.” Two icons of the Virgin Mary made their way through the crowd, followed by a long procession of priests. The last one in line was the auxiliary Bishop of Buenos Aires, Gustavo Carrara, who initiated the mass. Everyone made the sign of the cross and the sound of the drums faded away.

The priests and their parishioners came together to strongly repudiate Milei’s offensive attacks on the Pope, and issued a statement signed by 70 Argentine clergy. Days before, the protest organizers acknowledged that it is unusual for the Church to speak out against criticism of the pontiff, but said it was warranted in this case. “One wonders if someone… who cannot express a different opinion without resorting to shouting and insults can handle the stress of holding a public office,” read the statement.

Milei, a libertarian economist and former TV talk-show host who was the top vote-getter in the August primary elections, saw an easy target in the Jesuit Pope, who represents one of the least conservative sectors of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Francis has often spoken critically of political neoliberalism and populism. At various times, Milei called the Pope a “disgusting leftist”, and an “imbecile” who “promotes communism” and “defends social justice,” a concept that is anathema to the far-right candidate’s party, which has promised a minimalist government that will eliminate the country’s health, education and labor ministries.

Parishioners carry an icon representing Our Lady of the Miracles of Caacupé, the church where the mass was celebrated.
Parishioners carry an icon representing Our Lady of the Miracles of Caacupé, the church where the mass was celebrated.ENRIQUE GARCIA MEDINA

“Social justice is part of the Gospel — it is loving your neighbor,” Father José María Di Paola told the crowd. Di Paolo has known Pope Francis since he was Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires. “Social justice begins with understanding the meaning of freedom. It’s not just about doing what’s convenient for ourselves, but also about doing things for others. When the government intelligently engages with and supports communities, we can achieve real and lasting change.”

Di Paola, who has worked for over 20 years in the low-income neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, remembers how they endured the political, economic and social crisis of 2001. “We had to rely on the parish, the health center and some soup kitchens. We made some progress, but we had very little. Nowadays, we have schools, the child cash transfers and labor cooperatives. However, it’s clear that these efforts are still not enough. The widespread anger that gave so many votes to Milei in the primaries is the fault of the entire ruling class because they have failed to serve the community’s needs.”

People praying during the mass dedicated to Pope Francis in Buenos Aires; September 5, 2023.
People praying during the mass dedicated to Pope Francis in Buenos Aires; September 5, 2023.ENRIQUE GARCIA MEDINA

In the audience was Luján Pereira, who has worked in a soup kitchen for eight years in the western part of Buenos Aires, providing meals three times a week to 180 families. “In 2001, kids were fainting from hunger,” he said. Luis Castagno, a recovering drug addict, was also there. He lives in a recovery center that is part of the Hogar de Cristo federation, an organization addressing social vulnerability and substance use that receives some government funding.

Castagno didn’t vote because he couldn’t leave the recovery center, but on this day he protested Milei’s attacks on the Pope carrying the icon of Our Lady of Luján, Argentina’s patron saint. The crowd spilled down the streets surrounding the church. “There could be 10,000 people here today,” said one of the organizers, his voice scratchy from exhorting the crowd. Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel and other government officials were also there. The mass lasted about 30 minutes and ended with a prayer for the Pope. “Let’s give Pope Francis a big hand! Loud enough to hear in the Vatican!”

Argentine supporters of Pope Francis.
Argentine supporters of Pope Francis.ENRIQUE GARCIA MEDINA

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