SÃO PAULO – Appointed as the new Archbishop of Buenos Aires by Pope Francis on May 26, Jorge García Cuerva has a vast experience with the poor in Argentina.
For years, García Cuerva worked with inmates, drug addicts, and slum residents. That background has some Catholics excited, especially the so-called curas villeros (“slum priests”), while conservatives fear the politicization of the Church.
After García Cuerva’s appointment, a video of him celebrating Mass in 2016 went viral in the South American country. The clip shows him defending Peronism during a homily and combining political and Biblical remarks.
Since the video of the 2016 celebration went viral, García Cuerva has drawn criticism from many in the Church. In a story published by the leading Argentine newspaper La Nación, an unidentified bishop said his remarks were “unfortunate and imprudent” and that they intensify the political divide in Argentina.
Inspired by the late President Juan Domingo Perón (1895-1974), “Peronism” is the most popular political movement among the poor in Argentina. Though elastic and difficult to define, its core principles include political sovereignty, economic independence, and social justice.
The state, according to Peronists, must mediate conflicts between workers and companies and provide social aid to the poor.
Such ideas are often contested by conservatives and libertarians, who support a policy of more limited government. In October, those groups will dispute the Argentine presidency in general elections.
Incumbent President Alberto Fernández will not be a candidate, and his Vice President, Cristina Kirchner – formerly president herself – has said on many occasions she will not run. Many analysts consider the left-wing Peronists weak after an administration tainted by economic crisis and high inflation rates, and believe that a right-wing candidate may have the upper hand.
In that context, observers say that reactions to García Cuerva’s nomination have been influenced by the political situation.
Father Lorenzo De Vedia, known as “Padre Toto,” is a longtime cura villero in a slum called Villa 21-24 in Buenos Aires. He said it’s noticeable that more and more people have been losing their jobs and begging for food in his parish.
“Unemployment and informal employment are huge. As slum priests, we collect donations among Catholics and from the government and distribute to the people in need in the neighborhood, which is a rising group,” he told Crux.
De Vedia argued that García Cuerva has a “broad social sensibility” and will probably strengthen the archdiocese’s social works, something that makes him slightly more hopeful about the future.
“The neoliberal ideas expressed by several potential candidates show that the situation will be difficult,” he said. “The poor still hope that a candidate who corresponds to their needs will emerge.”
According to Spanish-born Father Francisco Olveira, known as “Padre Paco,” who has been living in Argentina for decades and is part of the movement Curas en Opción por los Pobres (“Fathers in the Option for the Poor”), many people in the slums are angry about the government’s failure to secure better living conditions for the neediest in society.
Olveira is an unabashed fan of the new archbishop.
“If the far-right and the defenders of the military dictatorship in Argentina [1976-1983] are criticizing him, it is clear that Pope Francis was right when he nominated him,” he said.
Olveira emphasized that the new archbishop knows Buenos Aires’s slums very well and that he will be a “shepherd with the smell of the sheep,” like Pope Francis want the clergy to be.
“When you step on mud and your shoes get dirty, people may not like you. But that is the kind of bishop that I want,” he said.
Paco hopes that the “Church of the poor” will be promoted under García Cuerva.
That’s certainly not everyone’s reaction. Earlier this week, an audio message about García Cuerva sent by a priest to a group of friends came to light and demonstrated how fierce the backlash about his political views can be.
Father Rodrigo Vásquez, who served as a military chaplain in the past, said in the message that the new archbishop is a “Peronist” and a “Kirchnerist” who “supports terrorism … and the LGBT, all that garbage.”
Vásquez also accused García Cuerva of being gay. He later apologized for his comments.
Father Pedro Bayá Casal, another slum priest, coordinates assistance to drug addicts in his district, most of them homeless men and women, and applauded the choice of García Cuerva.
“Archbishop García Cuerva also worked with addicts and knows the theme very well. That is a problem that has been continually growing,” he told Crux.
Juan Domingo Romero, a 60-year-old man who works at a community radio station in a Buenos Aires slum, thinks García Cuerva “certainly has a great experience in social work and will possibly increase the church activities in the slums,” but he should not get involved in politics.
“I think he should not have mixed Catholicism and Peronism in that speech [that appears in the viral video]. We are all brothers according to the Bible, and politics can divide us,” he told Crux.
Olveira said that despite the current difficulties in Argentina, the “Gospel always gives us reasons to be hopeful.”
“García Cuerva’s designation is certainly a motivation to have hope,” he said.