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The Bishop of the People

Mixture of earth and heaven
Design both human and the divine.
Whose face is seen in every human being,
And whose history forms a people.

Enrique Angelelli

From the moment Pope Francis assumed office, the new pontiff has spoken with a remarkable clarity of vision. In doing so he has drawn deeply from of a religious culture matured in South America and from personalities that profoundly influenced his early priesthood. Among these was an Argentinean bishop by the name of Enrique Angelelli.

As the vast pampas spread and rise east of Buena Aires metropolis, the land gradually becomes more arid, the towns smaller and further apart. Twelve hours by car from the Argentine capital, the prairies give way to the desert province of La Rioja and eventually town of Anilacco, a whitewashed scattering of dwellings, where the bell tower of the small church was still unfinished a hundred years after its construction had begun.

As unvarying as the salt grass, the town clung to the desert but never seemed to change — until the day that the new bishop arrived in a Volkswagen pickup truck. Stepping out from behind the wheel, the burley, energetic young man exuded remarkable warmth and an uncommon touch. He met with the people, drank mate (the native tea) with them, and listened. Bishop Angelelli would later say, that he kept “one ear to the Gospel, the other to the common folk.”

Bishop Enrique Angelelli in Rome particiapting in the Second Vatican Council. At the time he was the youngest bishop ever appoointed to Argentina.
Bishop Enrique Angelelli in Rome particiapting in the Second Vatican Council. At the time he was the youngest bishop ever appoointed to Argentina.

Born the son of an immigrant vegetable farmer in Cordoba, Argentina, he had studied in Rome and began his priestly ministry working with youth groups, and in shantytowns. Appointed as auxiliary bishop in Cordoba in 1960, he took part in the Second Vatican Council and in 1968 was assigned by Pope Paul VI to head the rural diocese of La Rioja. In a sermon given by Bishop Angelelli at his installation Mass he affirmed the importance of viewing “hunger, ignorance, and misery” in the light of the Gospel, and expressed a desire to serve all regardless of class, or ideology.”

The young bishop cast a wide net in a region where the church had long been considered the preserve of the upper classes. To better reach the rural populations, Angelelli initiated a weekly radio Mass from his cathedral, and celebrated Mass in the fields, and reached out to groups that hitherto had had little connection with the Church: poets, painters, labor leaders, and journalists. Angelelli also involved himself in labor issues. Attracting younger priests and nuns to his diocese, the bishop promoted a cooperative of women weavers and a labor union for maids.Inevitably, he came to deal with the issue of Anilacco’s one untapped resource: several hundred acres of vineyard that had sat abandoned for several decades.

Bishop Angelelli celebrating Christmas Midnight Mass with field workers and their families.
Bishop Angelelli celebrating Christmas Midnight Mass with field workers and their families.

Had the province of La Rioja been a world unto itself the community of Anilacco might have peacefully resolved its differences. But Argentina in the 1970s was a nation in crisis. Responding to the kidnapping and murder of prominent public figures by a relatively small number of Marxist revolutionaries, the Argentine military aggressively pursued anyone suspected of communist leanings. It was a struggle waged without compromise, and in a country where “to be a loyal Argentinean, was to be a Catholic,” the struggle quickly assumed religious overtones. It was suggested that the Church had lost its way after Vatican II under the leadership of the “Red Pope,” Paul VI. Clergy and lay leaders engaged in social justice issues were frequently labeled Communists, and jailed, tortured, and even executed as threats to the fatherland.

In such circumstances the charismatic bishop found himself in contention with a group of Anilacco landowners. They feared that the reopening of the abandoned vineyards would cause a reduction in the water available to till their own fields. But in the climate of the time, and despite the fact that the bishop enjoyed the support of the provincial governor, the issue ballooned into a religious confrontation.

On a cold, windy Wednesday morning in June 1973, the streets outside the church at Anilacco were crowded with school children and families to greet the Archbishop on the occasion of the parish feast of St. Anthony of Padua. Banners of various religious groups flapped in the wind, and the bishop arriving in his telltale pickup truck, along with several other priests and nuns, was enthusiastically greeted. As they crowded into the tall narrow church, the townspeople looked forward to the procession around the town plaza, followed by games, food, and music.

Always a man of the people, the bishop appears alongside members of his flock with the stole that he often wore in public.
Always a man of the people, the bishop appears alongside members of his flock with the stole that he often wore in public.

Shortly after Mass began, a group of 13 prominent winegrowers and businessmen, styling themselves “Crusaders for the Faith,” entered the church and began loudly denouncing the bishop. They alleged that he wished to replace their aging pastor. They denounced him as a Marxist and worse, and urged the faithful to leave the church. Unable to continue the Mass, the bishop and accompanying priests retired to the adjoining rectory that was pelted with stones. Eventually they were escorted from the church and allowed to leave. In the provincial capital of La Rioja, the two newspapers presented diametrically opposed accounts of the incident. One praised the bishop. The other appeared with the headline: “Bishop of La Rioja Accused: ‘He is a Communist and a Terrorist!”

At the time of the Anilacco incident, Jorge Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis, was a young Jesuit priest serving as a master of novices in Buenos Aires. He had come with five other priests to make a spiritual retreat in La Rioja directed by the Bishop. Despite the problems at Anilacco, Bishop Angelelli appeared the following day at the retreat center. The encounter with the embattled bishop lasted several days and left a profound impression on the young priest. “I found a church that was being persecuted,” he later recalled, “the people together with their pastor. …I recall the affection with which he caressed the elderly, with which he sought out the poor and the sick on whose behalf he cried out for justice. Bishop Angelelli was in love with his people… He was a man who lived on the periphery, who went out seeking, who went out to meet, who was deeply a man of encounter.”

The Anilacco incident was only the beginning of a period in which La Rioja province became increasingly caught in the maelstrom sweeping the nation. Between 1975 and 1978, anti-government guerrillas were said to have caused at least 6,000 casualties among the military, police forces, and civilian population. In retaliation more than twice that number of Argentineans were detained and executed by government or paramilitary security forces. In 1977, three parish priests and a Catholic lay leader were murdered in the La Rioja diocese. Angelelli was one of the few members of the hierarchy bold enough to speak out publicly against the government. When the bishop’s family urged him to be cautious, he replied: “You can not hide the Gospel under the bed.”

On August 4, 1973, Angelelli’s pickup truck was found overturned down an embankment along a remote highway, his body spread-eagled in the middle of the road. Police investigations were haphazard but it was widely assumed that he had been murdered.

Little was said publicly about the cause of death until Jorge Bergoglio, now Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, spoke at a Mass marking the 40th anniversary of his death. In his homily he referred to Angelelli for the first time as a martyr. “Bishop Angelelli was in love with his people,” Bergoglio declared, “and accompanied them to the peripheries both geographically and existentially… Bishop Angelelli walked beside his people to the very end…he was a witness to the faith through the shedding of his blood.”

Pope Francis’ simple life style, outreach to those in need, and his message of hope mirrors the life and words of the fallen bishop. From the moment the Holy Father has taken office, he has spoken of the need for clergy and laity to embrace a broader, deeper vision of their faith.

“I prefer a Church,” the Pope wrote in his Apostolic Letter The Joy of the Gospel, “which is bruised, hurting, and dirty because it has been out in the streets… The Gospel tell us constantly to run the risk of face to face encounter with others…I think of the homeless, the addicted, refugees, indigenous peoples, the elderly who are increasingly isolated and abandoned, and many others…We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, to speak for them and embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them. Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others.”