ROME – Though he hasn’t gone back home since being elected as the Successor of Peter in March 2013, Francis is still close to Argentina, and that the Argentine Church is close to him, with several examples of this relationship in the past week.

Closeness to the family of a murdered young man

A month after the murder of 18-year old man Fernando Baez Sosa in Argentina by a group of rugby players, Pope Francis sent a letter to the family of the victim read at a Mass celebrated at the doors of the nightclub where the murder took place Jan. 18.

“Dear brothers, I know that you will celebrate a Mass in Villa Gesell on the one-month anniversary of the murder of Fernando Baez [Sosa],” says the letter written in Pope Francis minuscule handwriting. “I want to assure you of my spiritual closeness on this day. I too will celebrate the Eucharist for Fernando and his parents.”

Baez Sosa was murdered by a mob of 10 rugby players in the coastal city of Villa Gesell, some 250 miles south of Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital. The motive of the attack is not known.

After the Mass, Bishop Gabriel Mestre asked for “an end to violence; let’s all of us say ‘yes’ to being artisans of peace, something Pope Francis often asks of us.”

The pontiff had personally reached out to the family days after the murder, calling Baez Sosa’s parents. Though both the family and the Vatican said the Feb. 2 call was a private conversation, the parents acknowledged the pope’s outreach was a “gesture against violence.”

The accused, all aged 18-21, are from a rugby team based in the city of Zarate, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

Not all of the players – identified in the local press as “The Rugbiers” – had the same level of participation in the crime: One of them kicked Baez Sosa in the head when he was already unconscious, and several others participated in the beating.

Witnesses identified others as accessories to the crime, as they either deterred Baez Sosa’s friends from helping him, cheered as the young man was beaten, or chased the victim before the attack.

On Tuesday, as the country marked the first month anniversary of the crime, the family of Baez Sosa led a rally of thousands in front of the national Congress, demanding justice and an end to violence. Smaller rallies were held throughout the country, as well as in London and Barcelona.

Support for Querida Amazonia

Last week the Vatican released Pope Francis’s post-synodal exhortation on the Amazon region.

In the wake of the document’s release, the Argentine bishops’ conference ministry for indigenous people released a message to denounce the malnutrition and death of indigenous children in the country’s northern region.

RELATED: Pope ducks debates over married priests, women deacons in Amazon doc

In the first months of the year, at least 8 children from the Wichi indigenous community died from malnutrition in Argentina’s province of Chaco, and dozens of other children are currently hospitalized.

The health minister of the region, Josefina Medrano, simply said that it’s “not new” that children from this community die at this time of the year, due to the severe heat that affects the region during the Southern hemisphere summer.

“In the light of the Apostolic Exhortation Querida Amazonia, we want to invite you to look at the distressing reality that the original peoples and communities of the region of our Argentine Chaco live, due to malnutrition and death of children, lack of drinking water and other scourges,” reads the Feb. 14 bishops’ statement.

“We cannot give immediate answers to the social and health emergencies in which many communities live, but we can assume a merciful attitude that frees us from indifference and media sensationalism and makes us complicit with the suffering of the most forgotten,” they wrote.

Quoting from Francis’s document, they compare the situation of the indigenous in the Amazon region to that of the indigenous populations in Chaco: “The imbalance of power is enormous; the weak have no means of defending themselves, while the winners take it all … local powers, using the excuse of development, were also party to agreements aimed at razing the forest with impunity and indiscriminately.”

A society that doesn’t know how to take care of its children and the most vulnerable groups runs serious risks of implosion and death, the statement says: “We cannot mortgage our future or let our hope be stolen, since it is not possible to ‘starve to death in the blessed land of bread’.”

Meanwhile, Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez – often labeled as the ghostwriter of Francis’s environmental encyclical, Laudato Si’ – said he regretted the media’s focus on the ordination of married men into the priesthood when discussing Querida Amazonia.

In a statement released Feb. 13, the archbishop of La Plata warned that those who continue to exploit the Amazon rainforest will “rub their hands” at the fact that Catholics continue to fight over inter-ecclesial matters instead of focusing on addressing the enormous disparity in the region.

According to Fernandez, those who are focused on Francis not speaking about the ordination of the so called viri probati, either because they were in favor or against the proposal, continue to ignore the pope’s words contention that it’s a clericalist solution for a problem affecting society and the Church in the Amazon.

The discussion about married priests, the archbishop said, was a distraction from “boldly imagining a Church that is markedly lay.”

In his statement, the archbishop also notes that Francis warns against equating priesthood with power.

Bishops double down on the defense of life

Bishop Oscar Ojea, president of the Argentine bishops conference, gave an interview to Radio Maria on Tuesday urging people to participate in the March 8 Mass for the defense of women and the unborn child to be held in the National Shrine of Our Lady of Lujan, Patroness of Argentina.

As the government of President Alberto Fernandez continues to push not only for the decriminalization of abortion, wanting for it to be “free, available and safe” in every health facility in the country, the bishops called on Catholics and all people of good will to attend the Mass, taking place on International Women’s Day.

The theme of the celebration is: “Yes to women, yes to life.”

Ojea said that the goal of the Mass is to defend life and to defend the women of Argentina, and also urge the protection of the right to life of the elderly, the infirm and those who are in prison.

He called for the “defense of life in all stages of its development, in all its way. It would be a betrayal to the message of the Gospel to only defend the life at the moment of conception.”

“On the occasion of International Women’s Day, and given the many words of the pope addressed to the defense of the dignity of women, speaking of the enormous violence that is exercised many times against women through chauvinistic attitudes and a false authoritarianism; this is an excellent opportunity to make this call to all the brothers of the motherland, to defend life and defend our women,” Ojea added.

Though he didn’t mention it, Argentina is facing high instances of violence against women perpetrated by their partners, known as “femicide.” Statistics vary, but some claim that a woman is killed by her male partner every 40 hours in the country.

Ojea said in the interview that the Catholic Church is not “anti-rights,” and called on all Christians to be “brave” and live the whole message of the Gospel.

Quoting Laudato Si’, Ojea said that the right of life must always be defended; if it’s not, then the lives of the weakest in society will be discarded.

“Just as we defend the smallest [creatures] of nature, so that no species be extinguished, that no being of God’s creation be extinguished because he knows why he has created it, much more so a human person [needs to be defended],” Ojea said.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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