martedì 18 luglio 2017

A disciple of Pope Francis in Argentina’s violent slums
Financial Times
(Benedict Mander) Drug-trafficking makes gun deaths alarmingly frequent for Padre Pepe’s congregation -- It was immediately clear that something was wrong. Grief hung heavily in the air as we arrived at Padre Pepe’s church in the shanty town neighbourhood of Villa la Carcova on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.
We soon learnt that a 14-year-old boy, whose mother was a devout member of the congregation, had been shot dead the night before. The boy was the latest victim of the slow-burning war that drug-trafficking gangs are waging in the vast urban sprawl surrounding Argentina’s capital, where the consumption of illicit substances has spiralled since the millennium.
Once a convenient port for sending cocaine and marijuana across the Atlantic to eager consumers in Europe, Buenos Aires now offers an attractive market to traffickers, whose foot soldiers fight viciously to defend their territory. José María di Paola, known to most simply as Padre Pepe (Father Pepe), is at the frontline of that battle, as the priest strives to show the luckless youths who are sucked into that world that there is another way — or, better still, to prevent them from entering it at all.
Following in the footsteps of his mentor Jorge Bergoglio, who earned fame as the “slum bishop” before he went on to become Pope Francis, Padre Pepe is the genuine slum priest. Indeed, Pope Francis described him as “a man of God who does my soul and spiritual life a lot of good”. It is not hard to see why. His tireless dedication to the most destitute members of Argentine society is an inspiration to behold.
Just to enter his modest church is refreshing. This is not merely a place of worship, as is evident from the two garishly orange basketball hoops at each side of the spacious hall. On weekdays, a large white curtain can be drawn across to hide the raised platform that contains all the religious paraphernalia, so that the space can be used for lay activities, too. What does your bishop think about this, I inquire puzzled, presuming this to be a somewhat unconventional practice. “There is a saying in Spanish: it is better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission,” he replies, with a trace of mischief in his voice.
As a permanent place of prayer and spiritual contemplation, Padre Pepe has instead created a smaller space under the shade of a couple of trees, with a tinkling fountain of holy water to which the congregation is free to help itself. It is not quite finished, he cautions. He wants to improve the railing that surrounds the area to protect worshippers from the shoot-outs that occur on the adjacent street with alarming regularity.
Clearly, the task of Padre Pepe, whose disheveled hair and unfastened dog collar betray a distinct lack of concern for the superficial niceties, is not an easy one. One member of his congregation described the hardscrabble neighbourhood’s principal economic activity as the commercialisation of paco, a kind of poor man’s version of cocaine. He explained that it was a “liberated zone”, where the notoriously corrupt police of the province of Buenos Aires step aside to allow gangs to operate with relative freedom, provided they prevent too much violence from spilling out on to the litter-strewn streets.
But “too much” is relative. After the latest murder, this was tragically driven home by graffiti scrawled across one scruffy wall that said “Ni un pibe menos” (or “not one kid less”), apeing Argentina’s hugely successful feminist movement that campaigns against gender-based violence, “Ni una menos” (“Not one [woman] less”).
Despite the challenges, which once forced Padre Pepe to go into hiding in a remote parish in north-western Argentina for several months after receiving death threats, he embraces them with grace and good humour. It was hard not to see the Christ-like parallels, as he presided over a weekly feast with fish and wine that he had blessed, shared with a dozen or so of his followers.
As conversation ranged from the Pope (“How can it be that he has still not returned to his home country?” “He won’t until he retires,” wagered one insider) to the origins of the enormous pacu fish in the mighty Paraná river, I could not help but wonder whether Padre Pepe’s own path, weaving in and out of the crossfire, might not have become too dangerous.

Financial Times