IT WAS THE FIRST SATURDAY since I had returned to Buenos Aires. I was saying mass on the feast of San Ramón Nonato in the humble chapel with the same name; despite the rain, eight other people had joined me. To get to mass we had walked a few blocks in the mud, and during the celebration we were continually ducking raindrops leaking from the roof. These simple experiences reminded me that I was once again in San Miguel, a very poor neighborhood of Buenos Aires, after spending the last two years studying at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Buenos Aires, like Boston, is a city of neighborhoods, ranging from Barrio Norte, with its high-rise condos and expensive boutiques, to San Miguel, with its unpaved streets, shacks, and many unemployed among its thousands of residents.
Saying mass at San Ramón Nonato is part of my job. I also say mass at two other chapels, San Ignacio and San Luis Gonzaga. All three chapels are mission stations, in a sense, of Nuestra Señora del Perpetuo Socorro, the parish where I serve as associate pastor. Saying mass, performing baptisms and weddings, hearing confessions, and organizing youth groups are among my duties for the 4,000 families the parish and its ten chapels serve.
The work is a challenge, to say the least, but I am not alone in my work. Fr. Julio César Merediz, SJ, is the pastor of Nuestra Señora, and there are seven other Jesuits on staff, including Fr. Juan Carlos Scanonne and Br. Ramon Flores. We rely heavily on a lay staff that includes Lidia Labo, Graciela Marcial, Roberto Rojas, and others involved in our pastoral ministries. In addition, Jesuit philosophy and theology students from a nearby house of formation come to Nuestra Señora for training in pastoral work and contribute much to our efforts.
Nonetheless, watching out for the spiritual welfare of those 4,000 families is quite a task. The problem is not only their daunting numbers but, more important, the difficult situation most of them are in: underemployment if not unemployment, substandard housing, few cultural and economic resources. A father and mother both struggle to find and keep work while their children walk past drug pushers on their way to school.
I remember my Saturdays in Cambridge, when I could generally count on a relaxed day, listening to a lecture in the afternoon and enjoying Mexican food in Harvard Square in the evening. The pastoral ministry I did with the Latino community at St. Mary of the Annunciation, just off Central Square in Cambridge, was very well organized; pastors had their tasks and social workers theirs.
But here at Nuestra Señora, Saturdays for me are a steady stream of masses, baptisms, weddings, and myriad other duties. My tasks and roles overlap; "associate pastor," I have learned, also means social worker, plumber, architect, psychologist, teacher, and administrator.
The pace of pastoral work in Buenos Aires picked up in the sixties due to the constant migration of ethnic groups from country to city prompted by industrial growth and the need for labor. Today, more than 30 percent of Argentina's 36 million people live in Buenos Aires. This massive movement of people is causing a synthesis of traditional values and more-progressive urban elements that is shaping Argentina's future. The image of a rural Creole migrant in a patron saint procession in a poor Buenos Aires neighborhood with a cellular phone clipped to his waist says it all.
From 1930 until 1983 Argentina lived through a long series of military coups. The country has never been able to return to the level of prosperity it enjoyed after World War II, when Argentina experienced an all-too-brief economic flourish, a process interrupted by the coups. Between 1976 and 1978, the time of the most bloody civil war of our history, guerrillas and repression caused 30,000 deaths. Argentineans are still trying to heal from the hurts suffered in that tragic period and need time to reach reconciliation.
The political and economic destabilization of the last 25 years has deeply affected the lives of my people. Corrupt government, poor administration, and neoliberal expansion have created an unemployment rate of 18 percent, a shrinking middle class, and a widening gap between rich and poor. This poor economic situation has been very destructive at the social level. The financial pressures our people face have led to the disintegration of many families.
A parishioner of twenty years, a barber who lives near one of our chapels, came to me in an exhausted state, asking to talk. His son, who had been picked up by the police a number of times for gang activity, is battling drug addiction, barely staying in a rehab program. The time and money the family had spent trying to deal with the son's problems were taking a horrible toll on the family.
Such stories, common in our pastoral setting, are an all-too-familiar reality for many residents of poor neighborhoods such as San Miguel, in Buenos Aires, a city of neighborhoods. On its streets many Jesuits are ministering to a people whose lives are the via crucis, the way of the cross; on its streets they share daily bread with their fellow Argentineans.
Page maintained by Richard VandeVelde, [email protected] Copyright(c) Company Magazine ,1998. Created:9/3/98, Updated: 9/21/98