ROSARIO, Argentina — A “slum priest” in Argentina admired by Pope Francis died Saturday after a three-month battle with the coronavirus, hailed by the movement of which he was a part as a “martyr for the poor.”
Father Basilicio “Bachi” Britez, 52 at the time of his death, had suffered from kidney problems, hypertension and diabetes, so when the COVID-19 pandemic began to surge in Argentina, he was advised to leave the shantytown where he lived and served due to the impossibility of observing a strict quarantine regime in such cramped quarters.
Britez refused, insisting he couldn’t abandon the people he’d been entrusted to protect in La Matanza, one of the poor areas that make up Buenos Aires’ industrial belts.
After testing positive for the coronavirus in June, Britez was hospitalized in the intensive care unit at the San Camilo Clinic. In a message he released at the time, he invoked a sports image to explain his attitude.
“It’s the game that I decided to play, which was to be on the side of the people, accompanying them in these particular moments and not be in the comfort of my home,” he said. “But, well, God’s will is that, at the moment, I be on the substitutes bench.”
Pope Francis followed the case of the hospitalized priest closely, calling several times to the San Camilo Clinic to either speak to him or to those caring for him when Britez couldn’t talk.
“Three of the priests who work among you are sick,” the pontiff said in a video he sent to Britez’s bishop in July. “I think mainly of Father Bachi, the pioneer of Villa Palito, who later went to Saint Petersburg, Puerta de Hierro, all those neighborhoods to which he dedicates his life. At this moment he is fighting for his life, he is fighting because he’s not well.”
In the video, the pope said he was “close” to the slum priests, praying for them: “All the people of God together with their sick priests. It is the moment to give thanks to God for the testimony of these priests, ask him for their health and that they can go on [working],” Francis said.
An Argentinian association of “slum priests,” meaning clergy who live and serve in the poorest areas of the country, called Britez a “martyr for the poor.”
“He died of Covid-19 for being present in his community, giving every last drop of his blood for his people,” the group said.
Born in Paraguay, Britez emigrated to Argentina with his family when he was a child, always living in underclass neighborhoods. When the family first arrived in Pope Francis’ country, they lived in a slum later destroyed by the military government that ruled Argentina in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
His diocesan bishop, Edaurdo Garcia, of San Justo, announced the death of the priest through a message on Facebook: “With much pain, I inform you that this morning dear Father Bachi passed from this world on to the house of the Father. We pray for his family, for the Church of San Justo where he did so much good and we give thanks for the gift of his life.”
“Today the communities are moved, as great [point of] reference from the neighborhoods is gone,” Garcia wrote.
Even before his ordination, Britez had become a social referent in the place where he lived, demanding a dignified life for his neighbors, asking authorities to set up an electric network, a sewer system and roads.
There are an estimated 4,000 slums and shanty towns in Argentina, and as of 2018, more than three million people lived in extremely precarious situation, meaning, with no light, gas or sewers. The pandemic has made the situation worse, as the government’s measures of strict lockdown that will extend until Sept. 20, have led UNICEF, the United Nations children agency, to project that 50 percent of Argentina’s children will live under the poverty line before the end of the year.
Britez was also a leader in the country’s vast network of “Christ Homes,” centers for drug addicts, ran by the Church, and the first of which was opened in 2008 at the explicit order of then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, today Pope Francis. There are 160 Hogares de Cristo across the country and they do a vastly unacknowledged job in helping thousands of young men and women- some as young as 9- to recover from their addiction to Paco.
Considered the cheapest illegal drug available in the streets of Buenos Aires, paco is what remains from the narco-kitchens producing cocaine bound for the United States and European markets. It’s a highly addictive mixture of raw cocaine cut with chemicals, glue, crushed glass and rat poison sold in small transparent bags that in upper-class kids use to hold their candies.
Britez’s funeral Mass was led by Father Jose Maria “Pepe” Di Paola, a long-time referent of the movement of slum priests, but also present were representatives of the national commission for the pastoral care of addictions and the “family” of Hogar de Cristo. The Mass was celebrated behind closes doors and livestreamed, as public liturgies have been banned in Buenos Aires for over five months.
Britez was “a companion in our path, in every sense, because he was always thinking of the other,” Di Paola said during his homily. “Bachi walked away, he left us and walked to the house of God. When we look back and see all the love that he transmitted and displayed in his life towards so many young people — so many people — to so many poor people to whom he dedicated his entire life, we find the story of someone who was very close to everyone both in prayer and action.”
“Someone who was an example for priests and also for the laity,” Di Paola said.
“Although we realize that we lost someone very valuable here, and that it is difficult to think who is going to occupy a similar place in this great family of the Hogares de Cristo, we have no doubt that Bachi from heaven will be giving us a hand,” he said.
Di Paola emphasized that the late priest was “someone who represents very well what it’s to be a priest committed to his neighborhood, someone who is born in the slums, someone who transmits the faith in the neighborhood, someone who projects life together with his community to make life better on this earth.”
It remains to be seen if the Argentine church eventually will open a sainthood cause for Britez, but if it does, it may be able to invoke a decree issued by Britez’s fellow Argentine, Pope Francis.
In 2017, Pope Francis instituted a new category for Christian life suitable for consideration of sainthood, called “offering of life.” According to this category, a person who died prematurely by offering their life for love of God and neighbor, even if the circumstances may fall outside the strict definition of martyrdom, may nevertheless be beatified (the step prior to formal sainthood) without the requirement of a miracle.
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