Beneath the Southern Cross: Faith in Argentina

“You opened your arms and embraced the world,
and even as you experienced human pain,
the stars went on.”

Ricardo Guiraldes, Argentine Novelist and Poet, 1926

We had come to a rancho on the unrelenting plains that extend north to south the length of Argentina for 2000 miles. Dinner conversation was lively. Guests from the United States, England, Scotland and the Netherlands shared a common table, and the convivial atmosphere and abundance of food and wine stretched out the meal until nearly 10 PM. As we walked back to our room Alice exclaimed:  “Look at the stars!”  Amidst the constellations dappling the black velvet sky, the Southern Cross stood out like a multi-cornered diamond.

San Antonio deAreco, a Spanish colonial-era town 80 miles east of Buenos Aires.
San Antonio deAreco, a Spanish colonial-era town 80 miles east of Buenos Aires.

One third of the population of Argentina lives in Buenos Aires. By 1920, with the aid of British and French investments, the capital was remade into the “Paris of South America,” with wide tree-lined boulevards and elegant buildings. Buenos Aires is still the same today:  a city of schools, museums, great shopping malls and restaurants. But the excitement of the metropolis was also exhausting. It was therefore with some relief that we traveled to a country estate in the pampas eighty miles southwest of the capital on a balmy afternoon.

The good weather unfortunately did not hold.  The Sunday morning sky was overcast when a taxi came up the dirt road to take us to the town of San Antonio de Areco, five miles distant. The Spanish colonial town with its squared-off blocks and cobblestone streets had been established in the 1700s as an outpost against the Native Americans. In recent years it has become a busy shipping point for grain and cattle. But that Sunday morning the shops were shuttered and the streets empty. Mass was already underway, and as we slipped into a side bench of the half-empty church I felt a shadow of concern.

On the surface of things, Argentina is a Catholic country. Our taxi driver’s rear view mirror sported a ribbon in the blue-white-blue colors of the Argentine flag interwoven with a rosary. Towns and streets bore the names of saints. Virtually everyone considered himself or herself a Catholic.  Yet the more time we spent in Argentina the more it became apparent that something was wrong. San Antonio de Areco, like most rural towns, was considered to be more Catholic than the big city. But as the only house of prayer in a population of 20,000 inhabitants, the principle Sunday Mass that day hosted less than 150 worshippers.

The lack of religious engagement in San Antonio had been far more pronounced in Buenos Aires.  In our long walks through the densely populated city, with its high rises, and infinity of fine shops, I was struck by how seldom we came across a place of worship. The capital with its immense population is not a “churched” city like Boston, or New York City where steeples can be found every few blocks.  Some 90% of Argentineans are nominally Catholic but only a small percentage attends Mass regularly. We were told that Christmas was not an attractive season, for very few of the shops bothered to put up decorations. “Our gods are our soccer stars and entertainers,” a university-aged woman tour guide explained. “For most of us, our church on Sunday is the soccer stadium.”

Things had not always been this way. By 1650 a Catholic university had been established in Argentina.  In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the country’s northern territories became a cradle of a Jesuit missionary effort in which thirty mission centers oversaw thriving agricultural areas and cared for several hundred thousand Indians, teaching them music and painting, and published hundreds of books in their native language. All of this abruptly ended when the Jesuits were expelled from the country in 1767.  In subsequent years, the Church stagnated, retaining its allegiance to the Spanish Crown, as revolutionary fervor, driven by French enlightenment ideas of individual liberty, swept through the educated classes.  Whatever balance the Church had obtained by the late 1800’s was swept away by the number of immigrants who flocked to the country in the twentieth century.  Between 1880 and 1930 the number of newcomers – mostly from Italy and Northern Spain — exceeded 3.8 million persons causing the population of the country to increase five times. As Buenos Aires spread out to new “villas miseries”  (shantytowns) and the population of the pampas increased, the best efforts of European missionary orders proved inadequate to minister to the people’s needs. With each succeeding generation, faith-life became more marginalized.

When Alice and I returned to the rancho that afternoon, the horses and cattle were huddled together for warmth against the “Austral” south wind blowing in from Antarctica. That evening, there were just two places set in the dining room. The electricity had gone out and the room was lit with kerosene lanterns. Apart from a young woman doubling as waitress and cook we found ourselves in the melancholy situation of being the only guests on the rancho, surrounded by miles of flat, empty countryside.

Walking back to our room, Alice pointed to the stars again, and the brightly looming Southern Cross.  I do not know what the future will bring to that great and distant land. But in the few melancholy moments in an otherwise unforgettable trip, I took consolation in the fact that the anchor of our faith is not what we or the Church do or fail to do. In the end, it is the cross of Christ pegged permanently into the universe that seals humankind in God’s abiding love.

April 30, 2008