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ROME – Between valleys and mountains, in a land of cool afternoons and scorching hot summers where a thousand landscapes are interwoven, a profound religiosity and rich wine tasting, the figure behind Argentina’s Gettysburg’s Address will be declared blessed this weekend.
The appointment is set for mid-morning Saturday in Piedra Blanca in the northwestern state of Catamarca, birthplace of Fray Mamerto Esquiú in 1826. He first donned the traditional brown habit of the Franciscans at the age of five, when, having fallen seriously ill, his mother made him a small cassock and promised she’d always dress him with it asking God for his healing.
He joined the order founded by St. Francis of Assisi at the age of 10, was considered too young when he finished his theology studies to be ordained, and had to wait five years, until he turned 22, to become a priest.
In the words of Cardinal Luis Héctor Villalba, chosen by Pope Francis to celebrate the beatification – the step before being recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church – Esquiú was “a great apostle and a great patriot who worked for the unity and the common good of the country.”
The Archbishop Emeritus of Córdoba, and, as such, Esquiú’s successor, called the late bishop and Argentine congressman an “example” in a country that today is deeply divided.
“We have to work for unity and put an end to the rupture and divisions and, beyond what some think, we are one Nation and we all have to work for the common good,” Villalba told AICA, the agency of Argentina’s Catholic Church.
After the country secured its independence from Spain in 1810, division was rampant, with a civil war ensuing. In 1853, the National Constitution was drafted and promulgated by President Justo José de Urquiza, who asked the provinces that made up the Argentinian Confederation to sign it. It wasn’t until after a sermon by Esquiú in Catamarca on July 9 that 13 of the 14 provinces agreed to sign. The only one missing was Buenos Aires, which, until 1859, tried to be a country on its own.
The homily, known as “The Constitution’s Speech,” is the closest thing Argentina has to President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Though significantly longer than the 272 words that forever shaped U.S. history, Esquiú too spoke about his country’s history, a fratricidal war that caused so much disunity and evils, the need to respect and obey the law and the place that peace and unity play in the dream of building a united nation.
“When the Constitution was declared, there was some difficulty in accepting it on the part of the Catholics. Nevertheless he, with that sermon in the Cathedral of Catamarca, said: ‘Gentlemen, we have to abide by the law, without law there is no country, without law there is no community’,” said Villalba.
“Esquiú worked a lot for unity, it was one of his themes,” he said. “For example, he asked the clergy to work in communion, in fraternity, not to work in isolation but as a Church that is a body with which we all have to collaborate. He also worked for the unity of the country. There is no denying that Esquiú was a great patriot, a man who worked hard for the good of the country.”
Esquiú’s parents, Santiago and Maria de las Nieves, and his siblings Rosa, Odorico, Marcelina, Justa and Josefa, formed a simple, hard-working, humble family: “There were six of us fortunate children of these tender parents who, without wealth and in the humble state of farmers, were very happy in the tranquility of their virtue and in the sweetness of a life devoted to their family and to God”.
As a priest, he distinguished himself in preaching, a ministry for which he was appreciated not only in ecclesiastical circles but also in political ones. He was an instant sensation at a time where news traveled by horse-drawn carriages instead of internet, and his remarks from the pulpit, through which he reached the hearts of the people in a simple and direct way, made him the confessor of choice for both the wealthy and the humble. Congress, parishes and cloistered convents in the region all wanted for him to lead them in meditation, particularly after he delivered the speech that sealed the deal of Argentina’s Constitution.
In a spirit of service and evangelization, between 1855 and 1862, Esquiú also accepted to play an active political role, as deputy and member of the Government Council of Catamarca. At his own request, he was sent as a missionary to Bolivia in 1862, and in 1870 the pope tried to appoint him as bishop of Buenos Aires- the see that Pope Francis led when he was still Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
The blessed-to-be considered himself unworthy to serve as a bishop, and virtually fled the country on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Rome and Assisi. He wished to remain in Jerusalem until the end of his days, but out of obedience returned to his homeland.
“Jerusalem, I wished to end my days in the sad and solemn shadow of your ruins; but the Lord, your King did not want it and I had to return where I was honored without any merit,” he wrote in his diary.
In 1879, the pope once again chose him for the episcopacy, this time of Cordoba. He tried to refuse, but the papal representative in the country wouldn’t hear of it.
Esquiú is described as charitable and generous in every need, zealous in his ministry, meek and humble in his expression, poor to the maximum and sacrificing. He’s also known for having led an intense pastoral activity and for proposing holiness as the heart of priestly life and Christian commitment.
His mortal remains rest in the Cathedral of Cordoba, where he died four years after being appointed bishop. His uncorrupted heart was kept in the Franciscan convent in Catamarca, but it has been missing since 2008, when it was stolen.
“Although overshadowed by a secular sensibility, he can be considered a figure of the first order in the institutional organization of the Argentine Nation, whose foundations he contributed to cement,” Church historian Roberto Bosca told Crux in 2020, after Francis approved the decree for his beatification.
“He did not write great political works or hold high office: his influence was quieter, but also more profound because it constitutes a deep thought inside the consciences. We are immersed in the din, but the most important thing is not what makes more noise,” Bosca said.
Speaking from Catamarca on the eve of the beatification, Father Máximo Jurcinovic, spokesman of Argentina’s bishops’ conference told Crux that as a man who “preached in almost all the churches and chapels of Cordoba, as well as monasteries, hospitals and prisons,” he embodied the idea of a “Church that goes out,” a paradigm change so asked for by Pope Francis.
“The motto that accompanies this beatification is precisely ‘Fray Mamerto Esquiú pilgrim, shepherd, and testimony of unity,’ something which our Argentina needs so much,” he said. “From the bosom of his family he cultivated a deep love for unity, and as a man with a pastor’s heart who was a pilgrim, he was evidently aware that to live unity, we have to be open to encountering others there where they are.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma