ROME — Pope Francis this weekend will canonize Argentina’s “gaucho priest,” the poncho-wearing, mate-sipping pastor who rode his mule Malacara to the far-flung peripheries of Argentina to minister to the poor.
In many ways, Francis will be honoring a 19th-century version of himself.
Born in 1849 in the province of Cordoba, José Gabriel del Rosario Brochero was one of the most famous Catholics in the Argentina of Francis’s youth. He died in 1914 after living for years with leprosy that he was said to have contracted from one of his faithful.
Brochero was beatified in 2013, after Pope Benedict XVI signed off on a miracle attributed to his intercession. History’s first Argentine pope cleared him for sainthood earlier this year and on Sunday will canonize Brochero along with six other people in one of the final big Masses of his Holy Year of Mercy.
When Brochero was beatified in 2013, Francis wrote a letter to Argentina’s bishops praising Brochero for having had the “smell of his sheep.” That’s a phrase Francis has frequently used to describe his ideal pastor: one who accompanies his flock, walking with them through life’s ups and downs.
“He never stayed in the parish office, he got on his mule and went out to find people like a priest of the street — to the point of getting leprosy,” Francis wrote.
Francis, who like Brochero and most Argentines adores his mate tea, has exhorted his pastors to go to the peripheries to find wounded souls and bring them God’s mercy. Francis himself has travelled to some of the most forgotten corners of the world to minister to the faithful, and as archbishop of Buenos Aires, was known for riding public transport around town and visiting the capital’s slums to celebrate Mass for prostitutes and drug addicts, the most marginal of society.
Another parallel shared by the two Argentines is Brochero’s spirituality, which is deeply rooted in the Jesuit spiritual exercises that are so dear to Francis. Just as Brochero would lead his flock in performing the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, so too does Francis, bringing the entire Vatican hierarchy each year on retreat outside Rome.
“If there is one religious figure in Argentina’s history who best exemplifies Pope Francis’s idea of a priest, it’s ‘el cura’ Brochero,” said Austen Ivereigh, contributing editor to Crux and author of the Francis biography The Great Reformer.
“He lived simply, and for others, at one with the gauchos and poor folk.”
Francis resembles Brochero in other ways, too, with his simple, casual and — even occasionally — foul language. In fact, Brochero’s sainthood case was held up for years by concern that his “vulgar” language was not befitting of a priest, according to Father Diego Fares, an Argentine Jesuit writing in the Jesuit magazine Civilta Cattolica.
“Over time, the officials in the Causes of Saints office came to believe the reality that the people of God knew from the start: that Brochero’s language was a language of love. Time showed that his words were neither vulgar nor refined: They were the words that were right for each person,” Fares wrote.
In his 2013 letter, Francis praised Brochero for the simplicity of his message and language.
“He invited them to drink a mate, they chatted, and Brochero spoke to them in a way they all understood because it came from his heart, of the faith and love he had for Jesus,” he said.