According to many handicappers, it would take a a miracle for Argentina’s conservative incumbent President Mauricio Macri to win reelection next month. The country is in the middle of an economic meltdown, with inflation now running above 50 percent, and Macri lost August primaries by a wide margin to an opponent ticket including the left-leaning former President Cristina Kirchner as vice president.
Perhaps in hope of divine intervention, Macri made a pilgrimage Sunday to the shrine of Our Lord and Our Lady of the Miracle in the northern province of Salta, becoming the first sitting president to do so in decades.
The annual celebration usually attracts close to one million people and this time was no exception, despite protests from a local priest over Macri’s attendance. The president had been invited by Archbishop Mario Cargnello, and in a relatively surprising move, he chose to attend.
During his remarks, the bishop didn’t shy away from Argentina’s current economic crisis. Much like then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, today Pope Francis, when addressing politicians during the national Te Deum celebration in Buenos Aires cathedral, Cargnello was demanding.
During the Mass, the archbishop spoke directly to the president, calling him by his given name: “When you began, you said that you were going to fight for zero poverty. What can you say to Salta now?”
An estimated 37 percent of those who live in Salta fall under the poverty line, almost five percent higher than the national average.
“You have come to a good place, to encounter the Lord,” the bishop said. “God transforms hearts and provokes freedom.”
Noting that there were many other politicians present, the prelate said his message also applied to them. He named the governor of Salta, Juan Manuel Urtubey, who’s running for vice-president with Roberto Lavagna.
“What I’m saying applies to everyone, and for everything that is at stake in the world of politics,” Carganello said. “Poor people are not an inconvenience. Poor people are an opportunity. Poor people are teachers who teach us.”
He urged politicians not to believe that history needs to be made through fighting and instead invited them instead to “build together a new society.”
The celebration is considered one of the most important pilgrimages in Argentina, with thousands walking for weeks up the hills that adorn Salta to present themselves to Our Lord and Our Lady of the Miracle.
Locals are convinced their city was saved from an earthquake through the intercession of these images, and ever since, Sept. 15 has been the devotion’s annual feast.
Among those who made the pilgrimage this time, Carganello said, was a group of miners who walked for days in below-zero temperatures.
“They work for hours in inclement conditions to give wealth to the republic,” the archbishop said.
Macri said that he was in Salta to pray as a regular citizen “for the future of all Argentines.”
When the center-right Macri was elected almost four years ago, he had wide support from the Catholic Church, particularly among middle-class Catholics, who saw him as an alternative to a populist candidate backed by Kirchner. Yet despite having vouched several times that he was a pro-life, last year he launched a debate over the legalization of abortion. The bill didn’t pass, but many of those who had voted for him felt betrayed.
Kirchner, who’s now running with Alberto Fernandez, finished her own presidency in 2015 on the verge of a social revolt, surrounded by allegations of corruption. She today faces seven possible convictions, but as a senator she enjoys immunity.
Speaking about the miners who made a pilgrimage to the city of Salta, the archbishop said: “They come together: the owner of the mine, the manager and the last of the workers, and they point to a new society. Isn’t it possible to come together, walking for history? Why do we believe that history has to be made fighting?”
Lastly, Carganello once again addressed the head of state and said: “Mauricio, you’ve spoken about poverty, take the face of the poor. They are dignified, they are Argentines and they are respectful. They deserve for us to kneel in front of them.”
Local tradition is that when thousands of pilgrims arrive after days, sometimes weeks, of walking, Salta’s high society welcomes them in the city’s exclusive Jockey Club, where elites often kneel to tend to the wounds in the feet of pilgrims and offer them a warm meal.
Earlier this month, on Sept. 2, First Lady Juliana Awada, who was in Salta on Sunday, went to Our Lady of the Hill to pray and be blessed by lay woman Maria Livia, who claims to see the Virgin and to conduct prayers of intercession.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma
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