'The Slum Pope? He is bigger than that – he is for all the poor people'

Before becoming Pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio won the hearts of the slum people ministering to the poor and sick

Buenos Aires

It’s a long walk down the teeming streets of Villa 31, one of several shanty-town slums within the bounds of Buenos Aires, to the “Home of Christ” sanctuary of Father Guillermo Torre. Flea-bitten dogs and children share the gutters and motorway flyovers replace the sky for the breeze-block homes jumbled beneath them.

Father Guillermo, a stocky man with a dog collar undone and askew, escorts his visitors around his domain – a church under corrugated iron, a day centre for runaways and drug addicts and, finally, the burial site of Father Carlos Mugica, a priest killed by right-wing assassins in 1974 because of his work for the poor. It isn’t Mugica we are here to celebrate today, but rather the man who until last week was merely Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

“He built of all of this,” Father Guillermo says of his friend who is now Pope Francis. While the leader of the church in this city, he helped find the money and provided the encouragement to build this and similar centres in the other slums – or Villas Miserias – in Buenos Aires. All are called “Home of Christ” and Bergoglio visited them as often as he could as part of his very public commitment to ministering to the poor.

Nowhere, not even in the other slums, is the reverence for Bergoglio more strong than here, however.

It was back in 1999 – soon after he became Archbishop of the city – that he arranged for the remains of the still iconic Father Mugica to be exhumed from the cemetery in the nearby middle class neighbourhood of Recoleta, where Evita is entombed, to this place for reburial, amongst the people he had cared and died for.

It was a day that Saul Sanchez, 48, a small grocery shop owner on what might be the main street of Villa 31, will never forget.

Today, he briefly abandoned his counter to run home for photographs showing him among a team of the younger men carrying the casket of Mugica to his burial ground. It was 9 October 1999. But if Mugica remains revered as the Slum Priest of Argentina, then to people here Bergoglio can surely be called the Slum Pope.

“He is a very simple man,” he says of Bergoglio, who used to come at least once a year to Villa 31 to give communion at a small brick shrine a few doors down from his shop and to confirm the young. “You know it because he liked to come here and just be with us. He is just a normal person, who would eat meat and stew with us and would even drink mate.” He was referring to the traditional “tea” of Argentina, an infusion of hot water and leaves often drunk from a dried vegetable gourd through a metal straw. As everyone here knows only one person was allowed to brew the mate when Bergoglio was coming. That would be Maria Picallo, who is 85, who lives at Casa 7 on Evita Street. She was preparing dinners for the poor at the small chapel a few blocks from Mr Sanchez’s shop when she heard the news of the new pope on Wednesday. It made her dance, she said last night. The new Pope loved her for her mate, she says. He would always take bitter, no sugar.

She is also one of the lucky ones of the slum who can say she knows Bergoglio, at least a little. Dressed in layers of cardigans with a necklace of white plastic hearts and a cross, she is moved when speaking of him.

“He is always smiling,” she said. “When he speaks total silence falls. Even the flies here stop when Bergoglio is talking.”

Back at the sanctuary, Father Guillermo recalls that Bergoglio also often visited all the other main slums, particularly Villa 21-24, perhaps the most dangerous in the city and not a place most outsiders would dare enter alone. It was there on Easter each year that the archbishop would wash and kiss the feet of the most afflicted, including those with Aids.

But call Francis the Slum Pope and Guillermo winces. “I would say he is something bigger than that,” he says. “He is not just for the slums, he is for all the poor people.” And not just in this city now, but for the Catholic faithful around the world.

Travel
travel
News
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014
peopleTim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
Sport
sportBesiktas 0 Arsenal 0: Champions League qualifying first-leg match ends in stalemate in Istanbul
News
Jamie and Emily Pharro discovering their friend's prank
video
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Sport
Manchester United are believed to have made a £15m bid for Marcos Rojo
sportWinger Nani returns to Lisbon for a season-long loan as part of deal
News
news
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
O'Toole as Cornelius Gallus in ‘Katherine of Alexandria’
filmSadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Life and Style
fashion
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior DBA (SQL Server, T-SQL, SSIS, SSAS) London - Finance

£30000 - £33000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior DBA (SQ...

Business Anaylst

£60000 - £75000 per annum + BONUS + BENEFITS: Harrington Starr: Business Anal...

Senior Project Manager

£60000 - £90000 per annum + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Global leading Energy Tra...

Associate CXL Consultant

£40000 - £60000 per annum + BONUS + BENEFITS: Harrington Starr: CXL, Triple Po...

Day In a Page

Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment