Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles by Inès San Martìn exploring the state of the Catholic Church on Pope Francis’ home continent of Latin America.
ROSARIO, Argentina – Whatever else may divide notoriously fissiparous Argentines, when it comes to their summer holidays, they all have one thing in common: Everyone who can afford to travel has been to the seaside city of Mar del Plata at least once or wants to get there soon.
Endless extensions of sandy beaches, with strong winds that force local tourists to invest almost as much renting a “tent” for their beach visits as on lodging for their breaks, this ocean and port city is famous for its night life, its alfajores (a dessert treat) and its fish.
So, the prospect that Mar del Plata might soon change has triggered national alarm.
The government of President Alberto Fernandez recently approved the establishment of oil digs in front of the beaches of the city known as La Feliz, the “Happy One,” which might not only change the local landscape but also its primary industry of fishing.
Crux spoke with the local bishop, Gabriel Mestre, to discuss this latest development, as well as his relationship with Pope Francis and the impact of having an Argentine pope on his episcopacy.
“I see it as a benefit, because I see it as a challenge,” Mestre said about being a bishop from the pope’s native country. “Whatever may be complicated, I see it as a challenge, that far from making things more difficult for us, it stimulates me to try to get the best out of me and of those I have to animate pastorally.”
Made a bishop in 2017, he’s one of the youngest in Argentina. He tries to reach beyond “the crack,” a term that became popular in recent years in Francis’ country to refer to political and ideological divisions that have strongly impacted this nation of over 50 million.
Crux: The national government approved oil exploitation off the coast of Mar del Plata, a city that is an icon of the Argentine summer. Are you concerned about this issue?
Mestre: Yes, obviously, it worries me. With the advice of my team, we published a communiqué trying to overcome the dynamics of political rift that always appears. This idea was also proposed by [one former government] and approved [by another]. So, the idea was to not get involved in the political or technical issues, but to try to focus on principles. Laudato Si by Pope Francis gives us interesting principles which, in the communiqué, I and my team of advisors chose to put forward for consideration with a series of questions, as if not to make harsh judgments from the outset. The main objective is to try to reach some consensus.
We need consensus with respect to those of us on the coast who will be the first and direct beneficiaries [of this project], and those who will be the main, first and direct victims … Mar del Plata is a city that lives very much from its beautiful coast, and any type of spill or accident can be very harmful to the citizens. Although [the project] may be beneficial for the city conceptually, for those who live from tourism, the trickle-down economy theory that the pope questions so much, does not always work…
It touches two resources: tourism and fishing, two traditional sources [of income] that may be threatened beyond the macro-environmental aspect. The fishing provisions allow very high production, but they give a lot of control to foreign vessels that approach the limit. Hence the concern and the need for political consensus as a result of the technical aspects.
Changing gears, were you behind Pope Francis’ message to Nobel laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who made news these days for being in the hospital?
I did it directly, because I found out that he was hospitalized. Even before the news was made public, I went to the private hospital of the community and I had a dialogue with him, I saw that he was lucid in spite of his health problem, and he received the anointing. Perez Esquivel is a Catholic believer, so we prayed, he received the anointing, and I automatically communicated with the pope who was not aware of it. When I received the news from him, I automatically sent this affectionate and close message, printed it, and immediately went back to the hospital so I could bring it to him so he could have it.
You were created bishop by Pope Francis. Did you know him when he was Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires?
Before my episcopal consecration, my knowledge of Jorge Mario Bergoglio was rather generic, because I never had the opportunity to work in any commission or area over which he presided. Once I went to the Episcopal Conference to make a presentation on Biblical themes, my strong point as a priest, and he was president or vice-president and obviously I greeted him. Of course, I participated in Masses that he celebrated in Buenos Aires because I did my bachelor’s degree in the Bible in Buenos Aires, but I am not one of the priests who, before becoming a bishop, had worked with him and had a regular relationship with him.
Since becoming a bishop I have had healthy contact, and he has always responded to some questions, making himself present because I understood that they were important, and that is why I communicated with him. I was careful not to communicate issues that were not central. For me the concrete link he has, and the affection he has with Perez Esquivel, demanded that I tell him about it.
The diocese of Mar del Plata, though being one of the favorite destinations of Argentines during summer months, is also a city of soaring poverty on the outskirts, resembling more the slums of the metropolitan Buenos Aires area than a vacation city. Why do you think this is?
The city of Mar del Plata has the nickname of La Feliz (“Happy One”) and we have many reasons to qualify it as a happy city, both for those of us who are part of the permanent community and those who live it as a tourist destination, mainly in summer and over Easter. But at the same time, like many cities in Argentina, it has structural poverty that reaches back many decades.
The case of Mar del Plata is complicated by the fact that many workers who come for summer employment then stay. For this reason, the city usually ranks third in unemployment rate among cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants. What happens in the suburbs of Greater Buenos Aires also happens in Mar del Plata, with people who come to work, and when there is a fishing or tourist crisis, the city suffers a lot. We have a geographical and existential periphery, of people of greater vulnerability.
In this context, the church of Mar del Plata has a very strong response both in the headquarters and in the smaller cities that are also part of the diocese, such as Necochea and Balcarce, which is already more in a productive region. The service of Caritas is very strong and intense. “The Charity Nights” is a service that has been running for more than 20 years, with people distributing food 365 days a year, including people from the different parishes that accompany people in street situations. In the winter of 2021 we rented four hotels, one medium-sized and three small ones, so that homeless people who so wished could have the possibility of having a place to shelter from the winter, which can be very harsh here.
We also work a lot with the Hogares de Cristo system, designed by Bergoglio with the slum priests. We have five of these centers. And we also have some homes for teenage mothers, and for women who, because of some situation, are thinking of having an abortion, taking care of the early childhood and accompanying the mothers affectively, medically and economically.
How did you manage to finance the renting of four hotels, because not many dioceses have the capacity to cover such an expense, even more so in the year of the pandemic?
We clearly trusted in providence. And furthermore, providence has even made us have money left over, so we are already thinking about next year, or even about having a permanent hostel. Thanks to the generosity of many people in the church, others did not. And the message of Pope Francis gave it a very important repercussion. And to be able to give a very transparent balance of what the money was spent on, from the two coins of the life of the gospel, to the businessman who was able to put more money. Everything was perfectly transparent in the papers, and it could be seen in the services that were really provided. It is a sum of generosity that will allow us to have an even better device next year. God willing it would not be necessary. Ideally, there should be no Charity Nights. That is clear to us. But in the face of the need, and for us that it is not a sociological and statistical question of the poor, but that in the poor is the face of Christ, we will try to serve them in a very clear and punctual way, as we have always done.
The night of Charity is very interesting, because in the parish that is once a week, it starts at 10 o’clock in the morning to prepare the 400 meals. And maybe it is an elderly lady who cannot go out, or someone who is afraid, but they spend hours working in the parish, there is the one who donates the disposable items, and those who do the visible work, which is to pray and go out to the 6 or 7 places where this sharing takes place, not only to give them what they need, but also to talk, to personalize the treatment with the person who is in a street situation.
What you said about poverty, leads me to ask you about the accusations against the Church in Argentina, with some politicians saying it’s convenient for the Church there are poor people?
Not in the least. There will be some layman, laywoman or priest who is a populist, as it happens in every family, but the accusation of the Argentine church and the pope as a populist reflects an ignorance that I think could be easily overcome by reading briefly any document of the pope. Who can accuse him of being a cheap populist or populist reading that?
For you, is it a benefit or a detriment to be an Argentinian bishop with an Argentinian pope?
I see it as a benefit, but because I see it as a challenge. I feel committed in this sense. I was elected president of the episcopal commission of catechesis, animation and biblical pastoral, so this issue that the pope raised about the lay ministry of the catechist, I see it as a challenge: the episcopal conference from which the current pope came out has to try to make a point on this, and see how we carry out this ministry. And whatever may be complicated, I see it as a challenge, that far from making things more difficult for us, it stimulates me to try to get the best out of me and of those I have to animate pastorally.
Another subject in which the Argentinean Church should be at the forefront is the Synod on Synodality. How is this consultation process in Mar del Plata coming along?
I would say quite well, because the synodal theme began in 2018. I made a consultation at that time to different areas to see if we would start to make a first diocesan synod, and the answer was yes. So, from there, we started working to have our first diocesan synod in the first half of 2020. The pandemic came, and the difficulty we had was the time delay. I consulted again if we would have a digital synod, and the majority said no because of the richness of the face-to-face. God willing, we will have it, two years late, in the first part of 2022.
The work that has been done is very deep. There are still many topic to explore, such as the place of the laity, the overcoming of clericalism. The themes that came out for our diocese are Renewed Evangelization and Renewed Catechesis. I thank God because they are two core themes for the joy of faith, with three transversal sub-themes: family, youth and the poor. This gives a lot of room to be able to work in the synodal assembly that we are going to have from March 24 to July 9.
In 2021 there were three big news items out of the Vatican: the corruption trial and Cardinal Angelo Becciu, the pope’s travels in general, and finally, the Mass in the Tridentine rite. How do they impact your diocese?
The one that had the least impact was the so-called traditional Mass, because there is none here. There is no group that prefers it … a few Lefebvrists come, but they are not a permanent community and they are not from the Catholic Church either.
The other two stories have had an impact, and in parallel. The economic issue, with the transactions in London, had stronger peaks, while the Pope’s trips were different from one another. So, the economic issue was a little more covered in the media. I think that the Pope’s trips, with clear and deep speeches, with very interesting houses that one can replicate and quote in the diocese, and in that sense, it was more important. But the economic issue, which is recurrent in the Holy See, is costing the Pope, who is a renovator, a true transformer. He has managed in many areas to reorient the financial operation of the Holy See, but it is a much more complex issue than we think. I think the repercussions of a figure close to the pope like Cardinal Becciu has been very strong. Looking back, one can see the financial-economic sphere is where he has had to change figures the most in these years of pontificate.