Latin America

Meet the ‘shanty town priest’ Pope Francis made the archbishop of Buenos Aires

The new archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Ignacio García Cuerva, 55, has decades of experience working with the poor in the shanty towns and prisons of the Argentine capital. He holds degrees in theology, civil law and canon law and is deeply committed to the magisterium of Pope Francis. His motto reveals the man: “Do not turn your face away from the poor” (Tobit, 4:7).

He is one of the four relatively young archbishops that Pope Francis appointed to major dioceses in 2023—the other three being Toronto, Madrid and Brussels—in the hope that they will continue to promote his vision of a synodal church well into the 21st century. Francis has already given the cardinal’s red hat to the archbishop of Madrid, and he, like the other two new archbishops, is expected to get a red hat, too.

In the first part of this interview, conducted in Spanish in Rome on Feb. 15, the archbishop speaks about his life leading up to his appointment as archbishop of Buenos Aires. In Part II, he discusses the challenges he and the church face in Argentina. The country is in the midst of a grave economic crisis in which 50 percent of the people live in poverty and inflation runs at around 250 percent. Last year, Javier Milei, a populist political outsider and anarcho-capitalist, was elected president on the promise that he could turn the economy around.

Early life

Jorge Ignacio García Cuerva is a bishop literally from “the ends of the world,” born on April 12, 1968, in Río Gallegos, southern Patagonia, where his father, a dentist in the Argentine Air Force, was stationed. “We lived there for the first three years of my life, and then returned to Buenos Aires,” he said.

The eldest of five children, he has a sister and three brothers. “When I was a little boy, I used to say that I wanted to be a veterinarian because I really like animals,” he said. “But after high school I decided to study law at the University of Buenos Aires, and I lived a life like other young people.”

“I went to Mass from time to time. I didn’t have a parish of reference,” he recalled. But in July 1987, his life changed when a friend invited him to make a spiritual retreat called “Days of Christian Life.” There, he said, “I discovered that Jesus…was much closer to my life than I believed, accompanies me always and is really a friend, a companion on the journey [of life].”

“So, after this retreat, I began working in shanty towns called Villa Garrote and Villa Palito, and I began to give catechesis there. At that time, I was studying law and working in a notary’s office. I had a girlfriend, but then I fell in love with Jesus. I fell deeply in love with the Jesus that I found in the face of the poor. And I felt very strongly the call of God, to give my whole life to him,” he said.

He entered the seminary of the Diocese of San Isidro, about 17 miles from Buenos Aires, and there studied philosophy and theology. He was ordained a priest on Oct. 24, 1997, at the age of 29.

Shanty town priest

Archbishop García Cuerva lived and worked as a priest for most of 20 years in the shanty towns of the Buenos Aires province. He served in the parish of Nuestra Señora de la Cava in Beccar from 1997 to March 2005, and it was there that he first came into contact with the prison world. After nearly a decade serving as a parish priest to Santa Clara de Asís, in Tigre, north of the capital city, he returned to La Cava in 2014. “When I returned there was a poster with the words of a street song, ‘Again Back Home,’” he said. “It was nice!”

In 2017, Pope Francis named him an auxiliary bishop in Lomas de Zamora, a city south of Buenos Aires, and a year later, reassigned him as bishop to Argentina’s southernmost diocese of Río Gallegos. “I reconnected with my roots,” Archbishop García Cuerva said. “I had never returned there before, nor had my parents. I went there with them in 2019 and for the first time as bishop of Río Gallegos I entered the cathedral, the same church in which I was baptized 50 years earlier.” He remained there until Francis named him archbishop of Buenos Aires, on May 23, 2023.

Relationship with Pope Francis

Surprisingly, Archbishop García Cuerva only met Pope Francis for the first time in November 2014. “When Bergoglio was elected pope I did not know him,” he said. In 2014, the pope invited then-Father García Cuerva to give a talk on social inequality in Latin America at a conference organized by the Vatican’s Secretariat of State and the World Economic Forum. “I spent a day at Santa Marta [the Vatican guest house where Francis lives], and that was where we had our first encounter,” he said. “Although I did not know him previously, he knew a little about me.”

“I always say that I first got to know Pope Francis through his magisterium, beginning with ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ [‘The Joy of the Gospel’], and then the other papal documents,” he said. “Then I encountered Francis in person, and I came to know him much more in these last years after he nominated me bishop in 2017.”

In a significant move, however, in July 2021, Francis appointed Archbishop García Cuerva to the Dicastery of Bishops, which has the important task of proposing to the pope the names of candidates to be bishops. The role required the archbishop to travel to Rome for meetings, and “in this way I got to know Francis more. I have come to know him personally. He is a great pastor, a great father who does profound evangelical gestures.”

When I asked what most impresses him about Pope Francis, he said:

His freedom. His big heart. His lucidity. He has an enviable lucidity. A freedom to think. The true freedom of the children of God, as the letter to the Galatians tells us. He is truly a free man and he has a big heart, which makes him receive all that he can. He has a word of encouragement for everyone. He accompanies and is moved by those who suffer…. He speaks to us of dreams; he tells us to dream big. He speaks of hope. He talks about betting on the future. He tells us the best is yet to come. He is a man who transmits joy.

“Last year, I wrote my last pastoral letter in Río Gallegos, titled ‘Ten years of the pontificate of Francis,’” he said. It called for “less applause and more commitment, not just focusing on the figure of the pope as a person, but rather concentrating on his magisterium, seeking to concertize it in the parishes, in the colleges, in the dioceses, which, I believe, is the great challenge that faces all of us.”

Jorge García Cuerva was installed as archbishop of Buenos Aires on July 15, 2023, and now leads a diocese that has a population of over three million residents, of whom 2.8 million identify as Catholics. The archdiocese is served by 441 diocesan priests and 107 priests from religious orders, 224 men religious and 1,430 women religious, 42 seminarians, in 186 parishes, according to Vatican statistics.

In the week following his installation, he celebrated Mass at three locations: a shanty town, a prison and a cemetery. He explained the background of each.

The shanty town

Archbishop García Cuerva lived and worked in shanty towns for almost 20 years and carries a piece of metal and some earth from Villa la Cava shanty town in his pectoral cross. It was no surprise, then, that he opted to celebrate one of the special Masses in Our Lady of Carmen parish in the Ciudad Oculta shanty town. When I asked what he has taken away from his experience in shanty towns, he said:

I speak with a lot of emotion [about this]. There’s a poem that says “Words are sometimes never enough, if what needs to be said overflows the soul.” To respond to your question: The first thing I say is that I have no words. At the same time, I say that I learned in the shanty towns that life there is without makeup. One lives sorrows dramatically, and one lives joys with much fiesta. There I met Jesus in the concrete face of concrete people who from their cross, who from their sorrow and pain, showed me [the face of] God. It’s difficult to explain [what I feel] just as it is difficult for someone to say why you are in love with your partner. One can find some objective reasons, yes, but at some point, one kind of falls short. Right? So, when St. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians has to say what love is, he does not really end by defining it. [He says], “Love is patient. Love is kind. Love bears all things.” And in the end, I believe he is almost without words when he says, Love will never pass away.

In the shanty towns, Archbishop García Cuerva said, “I encountered not only the face of Christ in the poor but also the suffering of the poorest. And I say God does not want it. God wants us all to be brothers and sisters, and he wants us all to be happy.”

When I asked if he had been influenced in this work for the poor by Father Carlos Mugica (1930–74), a priest of the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires who was among the first to work in the slums and was assassinated in 1974, he told me he first heard about Father Mujica in 1985 or 1986, “when I felt a desire for much stronger social commitment.” Subsequently, he got to know not only about him but also about Monsignor Enrique Angelelli (1923-76), the bishop of La Rioja, in northwestern Argentina, whose deep commitment to the poor led to his assassination in 1976, and St. Óscar Romero (1917-1980), the archbishop of El Salvador who was assassinated while celebrating Mass in 1980 and whose image he carries in a medal he wears. He admires all three because they gave their lives to the Gospel and to the poor.

Prison ministry

Soon after his installation, Archbishop García Cuerva celebrated Mass at Devoto prison, where he had worked previously, and said he will return to the prison on Holy Thursday.

The archbishop first got involved in prison ministry in 1997 while serving as a deacon in La Cava shanty town in the San Isidro area. While teaching catechists there, he noticed that every few weeks one of the catechists asked to be excused from the next meeting of the group, and when finally he asked her why, she explained that her brother was in Sierra Chica prison and she wanted to visit him. He asked if he could accompany her on a visit, and she agreed.

In the week following his installation, Archbishop Jorge Ignacio García Cuerva celebrated Mass at three locations: a shanty town, a prison and a cemetery.

“From that moment on I became involved with this problem, with this reality which causes real deep suffering,” Archbishop García Cuerva said. “I believe prison is a cry to heaven because it is the daughter of injustice. Prisons are full of barefoot people, lacking work opportunities, lacking education, lacking affection, lacking justice.”

“This [experience] changed my life, and from then on I was ever more involved [in the prison ministry]. To live in a shanty town and to be distant from the prison reality is impossible,” he said.

“Since I worked a lot in prison ministry, I decided to finish law school,” he said. He did so at the Catholic University of Salta, in northwestern Argentina, because it was the only university with a distance-learning facility in Buenos Aires. “One of the reasons I finished my law degree was so that I could explain with simple words [the legal situation] to the prisoners and to their families. I received many mothers, and I explained to them in simple words what the [legal] files say in difficult words. I also told them the truth about those who promised them that they will get their sons or daughters out of prison quickly, ‘if you pay me money.’ I have seen people pay with their washing machine, with their microwave oven, to lawyers who promise that their son will be freed, but I tell them the truth: They will not get out.”

From his experience, he concluded, “prison is an expression of what our society lives. One cannot disconnect prison from the social problem[s], from the economic problem[s]. I say Latin America is the continent with the greatest social inequality, and its prisons are full. One thing is connected with the other. Consequently, we cannot reduce the analysis of the prison pastoral care to the figure of the priest chaplain.”

“The poorest youngsters of the poorest people have three destinations [in life] that begin with the letter C: ‘Calle, Cárcel, Cementerio’ [street, prison, cemetery],” Archbishop García Cuerva said. “To work in the prison pastoral care ministry at times requires one to work in the field of education, and in all that involves prevention, in the same way as we have to accompany those who come out of jail, who carry a stigma that accompanies them for life, and closes many doors to them.”

The archbishop has written about the theology of prison and participates at the national and international level in prison pastoral care. Today he is the vice president of the International Commission of Catholic Prison Pastoral Care.

The cemetery

Archbishop Garcia Cuerva celebrated the last of his three inaugural Masses in the Chacarita cemetery in western Buenos Aires, the largest cemetery in Latin America, which he said was founded at the time of the yellow fever epidemic in 1871, “on the occasion of all the death and the pain.”

“The places I wanted to visit in my first week as archbishop were places of pain and sorrow,” he said, “and the cemetery was one that had been transformed into a place of very deep sorrow with the Covid deaths.” He said he celebrated Mass at the Chacarita cemetery where many of the 16,100 people who died during the Covid pandemic are buried, “to pray and to accompany in some way so much sorrow, pain and grief.”

“Death is something that we have to go through,” he said. “Death is part of life, and just as in the culture of some years ago sex was the forbidden theme, I believe that today death is the forbidden theme. We do not want to talk about it. But cemeteries remind us of this because they are places where those who went before us on the journey of life rest, and they present us with fundamental questions about life and what happens after death.”

With these three special Masses—in the shanty town, the prison and the cemetery—the energetic and outgoing archbishop began his ministry in Buenos Aires. In Part II of the interview, he talks about the challenges that face him in this city where the first Latin American pope was born.

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