Changes in Argentine church reflect vision of its architect, Pope Francis

A woman prays at St. Cajetan Church in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Aug. 7, 2022, during feast day celebrations for St. Cajetan, patron saint of labor and bread. (OSV News photo/Agustin Marcarian, Reuters)

BUENOS AIRES (OSV News) -- Argentina's Catholic Church is undergoing major changes, with a new archbishop for the Buenos Aires capital and three cardinals-designate. The changes have created a new landscape in Pope Francis' homeland -- a landscape designed in Rome.

Archbishop Jorge García Cuerva, 55, took the helm of Buenos Aires on July 15, while the Archbishop Ángel Rossi of Córdoba, a 64-year-old Jesuit, will be created a cardinal at the upcoming consistory Sept. 30. A Capuchin priest, Father Luis Dri, was also named a cardinal. At 96, Cardinal-designate Dri, known as Argentina’s confessor, is the oldest of the 21 new cardinals named by Pope Francis on July 9.

The final cardinal-designate from Argentina, Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández of La Plata, a 61-year-old theologian, will not remain in the country. He will bid farewell to his archdiocese on Aug. 5 with a thanksgiving Mass before he travels to the Vatican as the new prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Archbishop García Cuerva and the three new cardinals are a reflection of Pope Francis' vision for his country and the world as he embarks on the second decade of his papacy, according to experts.

"The pope is promoting lasting church reform, making changes in the direction he wants the church to go," Marcela Mazzini, a theologian at the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, told OSV News. "He is setting a path with people aligned with his way of thinking and his idea of the church. A church of the poor, for the poor," she said.

Father Máximo Jurcinovic, director of communications of Argentina's bishops' conference and pastor at a parish adjacent to where Father García Cuerva started his ministry as a priest in the Buenos Aires suburb of San Isidro, told OSV News that the changes are part of "a time of renewed hope in the Argentine church and for the Argentine people, especially the poor."

Father Jurcinovic said that Archbishop García Cuerva represents the trend with "a presence in the periphery, working there and not only thinking about it. It is a way of being the church."

Archbishop García Cuerva was ordained in 1997; he holds a licentiate degree in theology, and postgraduate degrees from church history and canon law. But his real specialty has always been with the poor. He worked in a shanty town near Buenos Aires with other "curas villeros" (“slum priests”), and since his ordination, he has been a member of the church’s prison outreach. The new archbishop worked as "villero" priest for two decades, becoming not a guest but a part of poor communities around the Argentine capital, including San Isidro, El Talar or La Cava.

Father Jurcinovic said that the fact Father García Cuerva is now Archbishop García Cuerva is not going to change a thing. Instead, he said, programs like prison ministries and work in the peripheries would define his new mission.

The new archbishop’s inaugural homily on July 15 in the metropolitan cathedral of Buenos Aires stressed the church’s need to have a place at the table for the poor. The archbishop was mixing Scripture with Argentine folk references.

In addition to the Gospel, the archbishop recited a verse from "The Table," a song by the Argentine folk group the Carabajal Brothers, which goes: "I would like that at my table no one feels foreign, that it is a table where all can meet."

Cardinal-designate Rossi is a close associate of Pope Francis; both are Jesuits and lived in the same residence in Buenos Aires for nearly a decade.

Mazzini said Rossi is a rich mix of academic accomplishment and pastoral outreach. He created the Open Hands Foundation (Fundación Manos Abiertas), which works in shantytowns in 10 Argentine cities, and he has played an important role in the country’s hospice network.

Cardinal-designate Fernández, a theologian, "embodies Francis’ teaching," Father Jurcinovic said, especially in his visiting of parishes throughout the La Plata archdiocese or preparing "meals for a common pot with the women at Caritas."

The pope’s appointments have been met with skepticism and a certain level of scorn in Argentina and among conservative sectors of the church worldwide.

Archbishop García Cuerva has been called "a communist" and criticized for perceived political ties to the ruling Peronist party, including current Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. In a 2016 viral video published by La Nacion in June, the new archbishop is seen combining political and biblical remarks.

Peronism, also called justicialism, is an Argentine political movement based on the ideas and legacy of Argentine President Juan Domingo Perón (1895–1974). It rejects both capitalism and communism, and for its supporters -- it is popular among the poor in Argentina -- it embodies the interests of the masses and in particular the most vulnerable social circles.

Father Jurcinovic dismissed the criticisms toward the new archbishop of Buenos Aires, saying that the "communist" label gets tossed around when anyone opts to work with the poor. He said it is natural that the new archbishop would have ties to local politicians.

"When you work in poor neighborhoods, you have to have contact with state and local politicians. Your parishioners ask you to help out if there is a problem with services, like water, or crime. They expect you to make calls," he said.

Cardinal-designate Fernández's appointment as head of DDF has also been questioned, with critics looking into his handling of an abuse case from 2019.

The sexual abuse case involved Father Eduardo Lorenzo, who committed suicide in 2019 after a judge ordered his arrest based on charges "of corruption of minors and sexual abuse of at least five adolescents between 1990 and 2008," according to BishopAccountability.org, a Massachusetts organization that runs an online archive of abuse in the Catholic Church.

In a statement published June 1, the organization wrote that "the Pope has made a baffling and troubling choice."

"In his response to allegations, he (Archbishop Fernández) stood in stout support of the accused priest and refused to believe the victims. Showing disregard for the safety of children, Fernández kept the priest at his parish post even as more victims came forward," the statement said.

"For his handling of this case, Fernández should have been investigated, not promoted to one of the highest posts in the global church. Nothing about his performance suggests he is fit to lead the Pope’s battle against abuse and cover-up," the statement said.

"The dicastery that you will preside over at other times came to use immoral methods. Those were times when more than promoting theological knowledge they chased after possible doctrinal errors. What I expect from you is something without doubt much different," Francis wrote in the July 1 letter to Archbishop Fernández, who was also criticized for his writings on marriage and sexuality.

Mazzini said that the case is "serious," but she does not believe that it is a reason to question Archbishop Fernández’s aptness to head the dicastery. And she finds the attacks on Archbishop Fernández’s position on marriage "cartoonish."

"As a theologian, there is nothing in his writing that can be used to question his orthodoxy," she said.

Mazzini added that the criticism really is not about Archbishop Fernández’s writing, but is coming from sectors in the church that rejected the pope’s 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia that concerned marriage, on which the archbishop was a key adviser.

"The pope had yet to bring in a close collaborator from Argentina to work in the Holy See. Archbishop Fernández will be part of his inner circle," Mazzini said.



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