Argentina’s president calls in priests to help prepare slums for COVID-19

Argentina’s president calls in priests to help prepare slums for COVID-19

Argentina's President Alberto Fernandez with a group of slum priests in the presidential residence. (Credit: courtesy presidency/ La Nacion.)

Argentina’s “slum priests” are joining forces with the national government to help flatten the curve of coronavirus, particularly in the country’s 4,500 shanty towns and illegal settlements.

ROSARIO, Argentina – Argentina’s “slum priests” are joining forces with the national government to help flatten the curve of coronavirus, particularly in the country’s 4,500 shanty towns and illegal settlements.

Seven priests – including Bishop Gustavo Carrara – who live and minister in the slums of Argentina’s capital met with President Alberto Fernandez on Wednesday, where they filmed a video urging people to stay home, even in the country’s slums.

“In the slums it is also possible to be in quarantine, we know that the neighbors sometimes have little space, if you see someone in the streets who needs help to isolate themselves, let us know; let there be no grandparents in the streets, bring them to our parishes,” the priests say in a video shared by Fernandez on Twitter. “The parishes in the slums are open for whatever is necessary.”

The group, including the president, then come together to pray the Our Father, answering Pope Francis’s request for all Christians to do so on Wednesday to ask for an end to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The meeting took place in the president’s house, as he himself is in semi-isolation because he’s over 60, considered an at-risk age for COVID-19 patients. Fernandez brought the priests together because they have first-hand knowledge of the situation in the slums, as well as the general mood of the population, not to mention the political capital to help keep people calm if the quarantine continues much longer.

An estimated seven percent of the population of Buenos Aires live in one of several shantytowns that make up both the edges of the city and its beating heart, as is the case of the Villa 31, arguably the most emblematic of them all. Two blocks away from Buenos Aires’s most exclusive neighborhood, this slum of misery is visible from virtually every route in and out of the city.

Most of the hundreds of thousands live a day-to-day existence, some collecting and recycling cardboard or as day laborers in the construction industry.

“We told the president that social peace has a lot to do with the help that is given,” said Father Pepe Di Paola after the meeting. “The president showed knowledge of the situation and assured us that more help is coming.”

The priest called the dialogue “cordial,” with an honest assessment of the challenges facing the slums, including the fact many services, including soup kitchens, have closed due to social distancing requirements. To help protect those most at risk, most of the 40 priests who live in the slums are setting up cots in their parish grounds so that the elderly don’t have to live on the streets and schools are being repurposed so that homeless people and drug addicts can be cared for during these times.

“If people are starving, they are going to go out and work,” said Father Nicolas Angelotti. “Even if this means placing themselves and others in danger.”

“In our neighborhoods, the social issues are above health, even if they go hand in hand,” the priest told reporters. “If the social issue is not resolved, we won’t be able to take care of the health of our neighbors.”

In a TV interview after the meeting, Fernandez said that during the encounter the group discussed how to bring more food to the table of those who live in the slums and promised that “help is on the way,” but patience is needed and day labor is “out of the question.”

Di Paola said that the request for people to stay home is almost unbearable in the slums, where some reside in homes made of bits of wood and plastic bags. Instead, the invitation should be to “stay in the neighborhood,” taking times for walks but avoiding social gatherings and sharing mate, Argentina’s national drink that Pope Francis would often be seen accepting from random faithful in St. Peter’s Square before the present pandemic.

The suggestions from the group of priests, he said, are about “broadening” the understanding of the situation to apply the much needed principle of isolation but taking into consideration the reality of those who live in neighborhoods that don’t always have running water or even electricity.

Public Masses in the slums, like throughout the country, have been canceled, but the parishes remain open, some soup kitchens continue to provide food – to go – or bags with non-perishable items.

Distribution, Di Paola said, is working relatively well. “But no one can be left without help,” he said.

People in the slums are living this period with “uncertainties,” because they’re facing a reality that they have never seen before, the priest said.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma


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