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Photo: Dan Valenti
Father Julian Escudero, MIC, left, and Fr. Dante Aguero, MIC, pictured here in front of the monastery at the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Mass., remain optimistic for the spiritual welfare of their homeland, Argentina.
By Dan Valenti (Jul 25, 2008)
At the conclusion of the recent Provincial Chapter of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Mercy Province, in Stockbridge, Mass., we had a chance to catch up with two Marians from the congregation's 11-man mission in Argentina.
Eleven men — that's what the Apostles were down to after Judas's betrayal of Jesus on Holy Thursday ... eleven men who had just seen their leader brutally killed by the Romans and who, with good reason, hid in mortal terror for their lives. Hardly what you'd call an auspicious beginning for what would become the Catholic Church.
The situation illustrates what a small number of dedicated people can accomplish with God's help. The Apostles' task reminds me of the stance 11 Marians are making in Argentina, a federation of 23 provinces in South America located between the Andes Mountains and the southern Atlantic Ocean.
A Large Harvest, the Right Workers
The Marians serve at the vicariate of Our Lady of Lujan, part of the U.S.-based Mother of Mercy Province. The vicariate services two parishes in the Diocese of Avellaneda, set about four hours apart by car along the Amazon River: Mother of Mercy Parish in Avellaneda (near Buenos Aires) and St. Casimir Parish in Rosario in the northern Cordoba Hills.
The harvest is plenty and the workers, though few, pursue their task with optimism and energy. Avellenada is a metropolis of three million residents (eight million, if one includes the surrounding suburbs). Rosario is also large, with 1.25 million inhabitants. The diocese has 56 parishes overall. What can a handful of missionaries do?
"We can try our best to bring the hope of God's mercy to people," says Fr. Dante Aguero, MIC. "We can see a progression in the acceptance of Divine Mercy, especially as people realize that without faith in God, there can be no answer or hope that satisfies the human soul."
Mother of Mercy Parish offers weekly Mass for approximately 12,000 parishioners, several hours of Adoration on different days of the week, and a monthly Mass celebrated in Lithuanian. All parish activities are conducted in the national tongue, Spanish.
'Inspired by God'
Father Julian Escudero, MIC, says a large part of the Marian work involves vocations. Without much money, the Marians have to rely solely on God.
"We don't recruit for vocations the way they do here in the United States," Fr. Julian says. "We don't advertise, conduct vocational retreats, no websites. We trust God to provide, and He has." He says there are presently four men, all native Argentineans, studying for the priesthood at the Marian formation house in Rosario under the direction of Fr. Eduardo Alvarez, MIC.
"It's hard to generalize, but I can say they join the Marians because they have been inspired by God," Fr. Julian says. When it is suggested that these young men have also been inspired by the actions of the Marians, Fr. Dante smiles and concedes, "Well, yes, I suppose there is some of that, too. In our position, we have to teach by doing and not so much by what we say. We have to have a response, an answer, to every person who comes to us for help. It is not an easy job. That's why we give our whole lives to it."
The Indiscrete Malaise of the Bourgeoisie
Oddly enough, the challenges the Marians face in part stem from the country's recent success. After weathering economic problems stemming largely from shaky politics, Argentina stabilized its government, paid off its debt to the International Monetary Fund, and secured the peso.
As of 2008, the nation had the highest Human Development Index and the second highest gross national product of any Latin American country. Its purchasing power makes Argentina the 23rd largest economy in the world. Its ranking as an upper-middle income country has provided many people with the creature comforts associated with prosperous, industrialized nations. Along with it, though, comes a spiritual malaise that results from ignoring the care of the soul.
About 93 percent of the 40.7 million Argentines call themselves Roman Catholic, although the Church estimates about 70 percent. The difference can be explained by the Argentine Constitution, which states that the government supports Catholicism. For political reasons, the government inflates the actual number the same way a newspaper might try to impress advertisers by defining "readership" to include complimentary copies as opposed to sold copies.
Father Dante and Fr. Julian note that evangelical churches have begun to make their presence felt. A 2006 census listed about 3.5 million Protestants. That number has grown to an estimated four million in 2008, or about 10 percent of the country. Even Islam is establishing a presence, with about 600,000 Muslims, more than 90 percent of who are Sunni. That number, too, is believed to be growing.
Needed: Strong Moral Guidance
"The media is our worst enemy," says Fr. Julian. "They manipulate people and present a skewed view of religion, especially Catholicism." Father Dante agrees, noting that the Argentine press has been "indifferent to the point of being hostile." The two priests also fault many of the Argentine bishops, who, in their view, spend too much time trying to please everyone including the media instead of taking the correct, though sometimes unpopular, positions regarding moral issues.
When asked how people, especially Church leaders, can ignore right from wrong, Fr. Dante pauses. Finally, he says, "We all have choices. Every day, a priest faces issues that bring him to the place where the road splits in two — right or left, yes or no, up or down, right or wrong. In the end, God only knows and at that time, we will have to answer to God for what we have done with our lives. I personally wonder sometimes how a bishop or a priest can say he loves God if he does not provide love through strong moral guidance to His people."
Despite the challenges of post-modernization, increasing secularism, and growth in the Protestant and Muslim faiths, Fr. Dante says he remains optimistic for the spiritual health of Argentina:
"We [the Catholic Church] have a strong presence here, and we need to be powerful witnesses of our faith. I see people praying in front of abortion clinics, speaking in defense of traditional marriage, and supporting of the sacredness of life from conception to natural death. I see many [Catholics] making a huge commitment in their faith. They show their hunger and thirst for God."
The Weak Weakening, the Strong Strengthening
Father Dante then shared a prophetic message Pope Benedict XVI gave the world shortly after being elected Pope, one that resonated deeply with himself and his brother Marians. Paraphrasing the Pope, Fr. Dante said, "Those who are weak in their faith will become weaker. Those who are strong will become stronger. I think we are seeing this happen."
In this way, the two Argentinean priests say that Argentina and the world is in a time of decision. We need to choose God for our lives ... or not. Either way, there are enormous consequences.
The small band of Marians working to harvest in an enormous field believe witnessing to their faith offers the strongest tool to swing the world toward God — that and education. The Marians believe strongly in the importance of education. They own and operate the Mother of Mercy Grade School and Blessed George Matulaitis High School, both in Avellaneda. More than 600 elementary students attend the grade school, with nearly 100 high schoolers.
Though there are large pockets of metropolitan Argentina that enjoy affluence, the Marians — true to their congregational mission — serve where the need is greatest. Mother of Mercy Parish and St. Casimir Parish (10,000 members) are located in poor neighborhoods, with high unemployment, drug problems, many homeless and mentally ill people, and large numbers of alcoholics.
Making Whole the Broken People
"We need to bring broken people into wholeness by sharing Jesus Christ, The Divine Mercy, with them," says Fr. Dante. "Sure, we are few in number, and sometimes we feel [overmatched], but in placing our work in God's hands, we remain confident and optimistic. We ask others only for prayers. The rest God will provide."
If you would like to pray for the Marians in Argentina, please do so — with abundance. If you would like to send a message of encouragement, you can reach Fr. Dante and Fr. Julian and the other Marians there by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Dan Valenti writes for numerous publications of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception, both in print and online. He is the author of "Dan Valenti's Journal" for thedivinemercy.org.