ROSARIO, Argentina – In 1978, the year when the Catholic Church saw not one but two conclaves to elect a pope, one Argentinian cardinal was floated as a potential pope.
Much like Pope Francis, he was labeled as a “communist” by some who believed his preferential option for the poor was an secular ideology and not from the Gospel.
Cardinal Eduardo Francisco Pironio, born 100 years ago this Thursday, was summoned to by St. Pope Paul VI to head the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. He was the first Latin American cardinal to hold a high-level position in the Roman Curia.
Though the first conclave of 1978 saw Italian Cardinal Albino Luciani elected to the papacy and the second, less than two months later, elected Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, Pironio continued to be a relevant figure in Rome.
In 1984, Pope John Paul II appointed the Argentinian as President of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, and he was instrumental in developing the World Youth Day events.
He headed said council until 1996, when he resigned at the age of 75: The bone cancer that would claim his life soon after, in February 1998, was already impeding him from doing most of his work.
The disease had first appeared in the mid-1980s, and speaking about his illness, he once said: “I thank God for the privilege of the Cross. I’m very happy for having suffered much. I’m only sorry for the fact that I didn’t suffer correctly, and for the fact that I couldn’t always carry my cross in silence. I only hope that, at least now, my cross becomes luminous and fertile.”
Pironio was born in the town of 9 de Julio, Argentina, on December 3, 1920. He was the 22nd child in a family of Italian immigrants. He credited his predecessor as auxiliary bishop of La Plata for being alive: Pironio’s mother first pregnancy, when she was 18, was a complicated one, and doctors told her she shouldn’t have more children because her life would be at risk.
Enrica Rosa Buttazzoni went to the auxiliary bishop of La Plata who helped her find peace and said a Mass for her protection. She would give birth to 21 more children.
Pironio was close not only to the popes he served, but also to several key figures of the Latin American church, such as St. Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was murdered in 1980 as he was saying Mass in El Salvador.
Romero had at least six books in his library by the Argentine cardinal, all of which had been underlined with notes in the margins, showing a careful reading. In his diary, the Salvadorean writes about a conversation he held with Pironio, acknowledging that he’d been accused of being an instrument of communism in Latin America. Pironio reportedly said “I’m not surprised, as they’ve published a book about me titled Pironio, Pyromaniacal?”
During the tumultuous years previous to Argentina’s 1976-1983 “dirty war,” the prelate received several death threats, and the country’s president, Isabel Peron offered to appoint him a bodyguard. He refused to accept this, both because he trusted in God’s protection, and because Pironio believed the body guard could die if there was an attack on his life: “His life is worth as much as mine,” he reportedly said.
In 2016, when the diocesan process to declare Pironio a saint closed in Rome, Father Fernando Vergez, personal secretary of the cardinal for 23 years, said that the cardinal’s “option for the poor was not limited to material poverty, but as the Gospel said, he first preached the Kingdom and then gave bread.”
“Pironio worried himself with the root of poverty, meaning, human evil,” Vergez told Aleteia. “This, however, was translated into reality, and he did so through his attitude with the poor. The cardinal wouldn’t leave empty handed any poor person who came to him, and above all, he address them cordially, greeting each of them on his way to the office.”
Pope Francis was greatly influenced and inspired by Pironio, including by the fact that, on his death bed, the cardinal hugged a man who’d led a smear campaign against him.
In 2008, on the 10th anniversary of Pironio’s death, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires, wrote that whenever one spoke with him, “he always gave you the feeling that he felt like the worst man in the world, the worst sinner.”
“He opened a panorama of holiness to you from his profound humility,” he wrote. “He opened horizons to you, [with him] you experienced that he never closed the doors to anyone, even the people he knew hadn’t understood him.”
Bishop Carlos Malfa, the secretary general of Argentina’s bishops conference, noted that when Pope John Paul I first greeted Pironio, the pontiff defined him as “the cardinal of hope.”
Ahead of the celebration marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of this servant of God, Malfa shared that he had a preferential love for the laity, the youth in particular: “He always called the laity to live radically the demands of their baptism.”
Malfa also noted when John Paul II called Pironio to lead the council for the laity, he told the Argentine that “I’m entrusting to you the most numerous and healthiest part of the Church.”
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the anniversary of his birth was scheduled to be marked both in Rome and in Argentina with live-streamed prayer vigils, Masses in the Shrine of Lujan, patroness of Argentina — where Pironio is buried — and in the Argentine church in Rome.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma