In Argentine shanties, priests live like the sheep they shepherd

José León Suárez, Argentina — The doors used to stay shuttered on Our Lady of the Miracle chapel in a shantytown on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, opening only on Saturdays for catechism classes and Sundays for a single, sparsely attended service.

Nowadays, the chapel opens early and stays late, offering everything from a safe place for kids to play soccer to packed Sunday services. It also provides a community center and spiritual home for often-stigmatized shanty dwellers, whose neighborhoods are known as las villas miseria, or "misery villages."

"It embarrassed me to go to church," said Sebastiana Solabarrieta, who volunteers in the chapel's Caritas clothing bank. "Now, everyone is here."

Churchgoers like Solabarrieta credit Fr. José María di Paola, pastor at the chapel, with bringing people back to Catholicism over the past year in Villa La Carcova, where evangelical groups had gained ground and problems like poverty and drugs persist.

But di Paola -- famous in Buenos Aires as "Padre Pepe" for his work with the downtrodden and drug addicts -- and his fellow curas villeros (shanty priests) provide an example of the "poor church" of which Pope Francis speaks, in which priests leave their parishes to provide pastoral attention to people on the periphery.

The priests have become an institution in metropolitan Buenos Aires, where former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio made them his foot soldiers in implementing his vision of a church serving society and priests being "shepherds living with the smell of sheep."

The priest identifies with the pope's description of pastors being close to the people: He, like others in the area, lives in a wooden home with no water.

"Previously, those working in the villas came from outside. You were in a parish and you would go to the nearby villas for a visit. Now, we live in the villas," said di Paola.

Priests have been in the villas since the first shanties were formed by people from the provinces seeking opportunities in the capital, although they weren't always well-regarded by the government, in part because their presence was seen as legitimizing squatters' activities. In 1974, Fr. Carlos Mugica, whom di Paola considers an inspiration, was murdered, presumably by an anti-communist group, after celebrating Mass.

Francis acted out of genuine concern for the poor, although the presence of priests in the villas has achieved other objectives, such as slowing the growth of evangelical groups, di Paola said.

"He thinks that in the mouths of the poor, you'll find the Gospel," di Paola said of the pope. "He doesn't see the poor person as someone who only has to be helped, but someone who can teach you a lot."

Priests in the villas seem stunned by the attention they're receiving; di Paola is a minor media sensation in Buenos Aires.

"It amazes the world that we live in poor places," said Fr. Juan Issamendi of Our Lady of Caacupe Parish, named for the patroness of Paraguay.

"The poor have a lot of faith. It's beautiful as a pastor to experience," he said.

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