Priests offer Mass after Argentine presidential candidate insults pope

3 mins read
Argentina reparation Mass
Clergymen prepare to celebrate a Mass Sept. 5, 2023, in the villa 21-24 neighborhood in Buenos Aires to rebuff attacks on Pope Francis by presidential candidate Javier Milei, of La Libertad Avanza coalition. (OSV News/Agustin Marcarian, Reuters)

(OSV News) — As Argentines prepare to elect their new president Oct. 22, a group of clergy close to Pope Francis launched an unprecedented intervention in the highly charged political atmosphere in the South American country.

The Archdiocese of Buenos Aires’ group of “curas villeros,” Spanish for “slum priests,” celebrated a reparation Mass for the insults targeting Pope Francis by the presidential candidate who won the primaries in August, Javier Milei, who has been quoted as calling the pontiff an imbecile and said his support of the poor is evil.

Father José Maria Di Paola, known as Padre Pepe, said in his homily that “it is unworthy of a candidate” to say such things, including denigrating social justice, “when social justice is part of the Gospel, part of the Church’s social doctrine.”

The priests who said the Mass explained the insults were heard more and more often, even boosting Milei’s popularity and that was the reason the Mass was celebrated.

A large crowd turned out for the Mass in the villa 21-24 neighborhood in Buenos Aires Sept. 5, and faithful were seen holding pictures of Pope Francis in a sign of support. A big banner reading ‘In solidarity with the Pope and the poor’ stretched above their heads.

Milei’s comments

Milei, an economist who describes himself as an anarcho-capitalist and was elected for Congress in 2021 with an anti-establishment rhetoric, has insulted the pontiff — his countryman — on numerous occasions during TV interviews and on social media posts over the past years.

Most of such attacks are apparently related to the pope’s endorsement of social justice, defined by Milei as an “aberration.” In 2022, when the pontiff defended the idea that people should pay taxes in order to protect the poor’s dignity, Milei tweeted that the pope is “always standing on the evil’s side” and accused him of having poverty as a model.

Those ideas have been customarily accompanied with insults. The long list includes calling the pontiff an “imbecile who defends social justice,” “leftist son of a b**** preaching communism,” and “the representative of the evil one.”

Milei, who has been repeatedly compared by analysts to former U.S. President Donald Trump and former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, is a fierce supporter of the minimal state. His platform includes extreme measures, like adopting the U.S. dollar as the Argentine currency and closing the country’s Central Bank.

Although he professes the Catholic faith, Milei reportedly has a number of spiritualist beliefs and has been studying the Torah with a rabbi every week.

In his most recent interviews, he apparently preferred to avoid new controversies and declared that he respects Pope Francis as the Church’s leader and as a head of state.

Catholics in Argentina

That new attitude was not enough to convince at least part of Argentina’s Catholics, who account for 62,9% of the population, although according to the CIA World Factbook from July 2014, 92% of the country was nominally Catholic at the time. Analysts say that most people do not relate the elections and the pontiff, so those offenses may not have impacted the votes of many Catholics.

But some people, especially in the poor neighborhoods, have been outraged, said Father Lorenzo de Veddia, known as Padre Toto, a longtime cura villero in a slum in the Barracas district of Buenos Aires who was one of the priests celebrating the Sept. 5 Mass.

“One can notice that many people have not liked so much aggressiveness, so many insults and so many lies,” he told OSV News.

The Mass in support of Pope Francis — and “of the poorest in our country” — as the invitation said, was said at Padre Toto’s parish, one of the many which were accompanied with great interest by the then-Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

The curas villeros’ movement was organized at the end of the 1960s to give special attention to the residents of the poor neighborhoods, which had a fast growth in the second half of the 20th century. The priests not only play a religious role among the poor, but also actively participate in the communities’ daily life, helping them to organize and fight for their rights to be respected.

During his tenure as a bishop and then as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, the pope had a special connection with many members of that movement. Dozens of them took part in the reparation Mass.

Social concerns

Father di Paola, Padre Pepe, a close friend of Pope Francis, said in an interview to radio La Patriada Sept. 3, that Milei’s attacks are not only against the pontiff, but against the Church as a whole.

“It is an attack on Catholic law, on the Church’s social doctrine. He is virtually saying that the Church’s social doctrine is bulls*** exactly because it points to social justice,” Father di Paola declared.

According to sociologist Marcos Carbonelli, a researcher of Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET) and an expert on the nation’s religious dynamics, said that although “the curas villeros are prestigious agents,” their ability to influence the election is “low.”

“The world of the poor in Argentina is very fragmented nowadays,” he stressed.

Milei received significant support in many villas in Buenos Aires, which have been historically connected to Peronism, a left-wing movement based on the ideas and legacy of Argentine ruler Juan Perón (1895-1974).

With its devalued currency, Argentina has triple-digit inflation and 40% of the population lives in poverty — which sparks anger toward traditional politics. The latest polls show that Milei remains ahead of challengers with at least 32% of support, while left-winger Sergio Massa is in second with 26% and right-winger Patricia Bullrich is behind with 20%.

Eduardo Campos Lima

Eduardo Campos Lima writes for OSV News from São Paulo.