ARGENTINA, Fr. Jorge González / María Fischer •
We are sitting in a well-lit corner, in front of the living quarters of the new parish priest at the Cathedral of La Plata, Fr. Jorge González, of the Priests’ Federation in Argentina. He took up his position a few weeks ago and is already working at full steam to “enshrine the cathedral,” as he described it, referring to a famous expression by Cardinal Bergoglio, today Pope Francis. Without having planned it, María Teresa and Daniel Martino and I witnessed one of the first moments in which the cathedral began to be transformed into a shrine. After the noon Mass in one of cathedral’s side chapels, the Blessed Sacrament was solemnly exposed for worship during the afternoon. It’s Jesus’ presence that “enshrines”, says Fr. Jorge, and we want to learn more about his projects to enshrine this holy and iconic place to which he has been entrusted. —
“When I came here, my attitude, on a personal level, was to thank God for what my life in my former community in City Bell meant to me, but I also had to make an interior break with it. It was a grace of the Blessed Mother. From the day I found out that I was coming here, when they told me, it weighed heavily on me. It was like an internal rejection, because I was very settled there, I had done a lot for the place, the people, the Schoenstatt college. Everything was going smoothly, we had a lovely parish, and I know that coming here meant coming to a more difficult place. Now it looks lovely, but in the first week it was absolute chaos, and there was nobody here. Well, it was difficult, but anyway.
I came with two or three ideas, which are the things I’m working on currently, such as the pastoral ministry”.
Restoring the pastoral dimension of the cathedral
“One initiative was to enshrine some of the space inside the cathedral. Actually, the first idea I had was to restore the pastoral dimension of Blessed Sr. Maria Ludovica.”
Blessed Sr. Maria Ludovica de Angelis was born in San Gregorio, a small town in the Abruzzo Mountains, not far from the city of L’Aquila, Italy, in 1880. She entered the community of the Daughters of Our Lady of Mercy on 14 November 1904 and three years later was sent to Argentina. She began her missionary life at the Children’s Hospital of La Plata, which today bears her name, and of which she became director until her death. He died in La Plata in 1962 at the age of 82. His mortal remains lie in the cathedral of La Plata. Maria Ludovica de Angelis was beatified by Pope St. John Paul II on 3 October 2004.
“Here we have a chapel with the Sr. Ludovica’s relics, but we have nothing that talks about her or her ministry. We already have a pastoral team and we met twice with about 30 people linked to the Children’s Hospital, the Colegio de la Misericordia school, and other volunteers in the city, and we started working. For example, the chapel now has a box where people can leave their petitions. I’ve also put in some wooden chairs because there was nowhere to sit and pray. We also started working with the young boys and now we have a mass on the 25th of each month, and after Mass we go to the chapel, we bless the children and anoint the sick, the sick children, because Ludovica’s ministry was to sick children. We started some mass publications of novenas and prayer cards. The idea is that this will grow, because contact with this place is important.”
Leaving the crypt
“Another issue now is to give the cathedral a more spiritual dimension. We started today, for example, with adoration inside the cathedral. We try to use the upper part of the cathedral more, given that there is another church below it that’s used more frequently. The church below was used for the people coming to Mass, but nobody knew about it. Now we have the midday Mass up here, in a side chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows. After Easter we began to improve the place, both aesthetically and acoustically. Now the idea is that on the first Thursday of every month we have adoration of the Blessed Sacrament from midday through the afternoon, ending with Vespers and community prayers before the Blessed Sacrament. We have to conquer this, because we’re not in the habit of doing this, and at four in the afternoon there is a meditation, a reflection, a kind of brief monthly retreat for everyone. The idea is that it’s not always the priest that does it, it can be a couple or specific people who can give a talk at 4:00 or 4:45 of about 4 or 5 minutes, and then there is silence and the opportunity for the sacrament of reconciliation. We also have another space of spirituality to which we want to draw the young people in the evenings. A particular interest of mine that I haven’t yet managed to implement is the Taizé experience, which not very well-known in Argentina and I want to bring it here. To me, the cathedral is a very appropriate environment to do this, because normally large cathedrals don’t have opportunities for Taizé prayer.
To this end, I’ve already started working with a group of young musicians who are beginning to learn the Taizé hymns and this year, I intend to have four evening events in the cathedral during key seasons, such as before Pentecost, Advent, and Christmas. This would be a youth space. Truth be told, the cathedral is often used for activities because has good meeting spaces. Now I’m using it a bit more, and we have already started ESI courses (normative Holistic Sex Education).”
Holy Week in the cathedral
“We also host the Diocesan Caritas meetings. We begin little by little, as a strategic basis for several life-giving activities. This year, I spent Easter here, and traditionally Holy Week in the Cathedral is celebrated by the bishop, but Monsignor Fernández took up the Holy Father’s initiative to go to the peripheries as part of his pastoral ministry as the Bishop. He therefore couldn’t celebrate Holy Week at the cathedral, and only celebrated the Vigil Mass on the Saturday. The rest of the time, he went to the parishes and chapels, leaving me to celebrate the Triduum masses and I had the opportunity to meet many people. This was good.
We also had Good Friday. For many years, we haven’t gone out onto the streets, but this time, we did a musical and artistic Stations of the Cross, starting from San Ponciano and ending in the square in front of the cathedral with a spectacle of light and sound for the crucifixion. It was all very beautiful.”
Identity from the pastoral ministry
“When I wanted to upload photos of the cathedral to the web, I realized that the cathedral didn’t even have its own website. The only website belongs to the Cathedral Foundation, an organization responsible for the upkeep of the cathedral.
We’re working on this now. What is new is that the Cathedral of La Plata recently developed its logo. We also have the image of the cathedral as an entity and a logo. Everything is going slowly, but it’s going.
The cathedral needs a digital identity, and we have to work on it. I’m starting with the pastoral activities.”
Bringing warmth to what is normally solemn
“People are becoming encouraged and are slowing starting to draw closer. After mass, I go out to greet the people. For me, the Mass setting was a challenge, because I was used to a small parish, and it is more difficult to make contact or build attachments in such a large Mass setting, which is designed for large celebrations, because that is the image of the cathedral and its symbolism as a throne. Our liturgy is more austere and being able to this is not easy. My task now is achieving this criterion, a big effort, how can I make what is naturally solemn warmer? I also don’t want to break the solemnity because that must continue to have its place. I’m speaking about the greeting, a word at the beginning, the kind of homily. I realized that at the beginning it was very difficult for me, because you feel very alone on the altar, if something is missing, there is no one to assist. You have no one to bring you a glass of water, everything is very far away. In my old parish, I’d catch someone’s eye, and everyone would look, and everyone would know, and bring what I needed. Here, you are alone, everything is so far, they don’t see me, they don’t understand, it’s difficult. But after a while, I noticed a change and I’m grateful for this.”
“Now we have also started a pastoral ministry with a couple’s group. In this sense, the local Schoenstatt family has also been helping me a bit. As is San Ponciano parish, which has two Federation priests. We have been meeting here, with people from various parishes, and we also make use people working in other ministries. This has encouraged many people.”
The poor who search for God and the good shepherd
“I also have the option of working more in the big cathedral itself. Previously the priests and also in the parish where everything was below ground: the rooms, the parish office. Now we are starting to work upstairs, where we can have real contact with people, which is something new I discovered. Since I started celebrating Mass upstairs, I have met people in two different kinds of new and beautiful situations: on the one hand, with simple folk who come to the cathedral, which is not the idea that people often have, that it’s mostly the “elite” of the city. When I was parish priest in City Bell, I had the impression that the parish liturgical team didn’t include humble and poor people, because the population of the City Bell parish is not poor. One of the only times I’d encounter poor people was at baptisms. I used to say Mass at San Cayetano and there were many poor people. It was the poor people’s chapel and there, you’d see poor people. In contrast, here the community is far more diverse, and this was a surprise for me. On Sunday I meet poor people, the whole family, children, very poor people and they are here because they like it, because they are attracted to this sacred space and its psychology. What seems like immensity for us, for the poor it feels like the immensity of God. There is an anthropological substance here that should be explored. Especially at baptisms, all the baptisms are of poor people, often from neighbouring countries, many of them Bolivians. They all come here to be baptized, I would say that I’ve done many baptisms, working people, which is a completely different group, the kind of celebration, the interaction, and afterwards many people who come and they when they see you coming, they approach you. Many are tourists, others come to me and say: “Fr, my son is in hospital.” they do the paperwork and return from the bank crying. Many people are not just tourists looking around, but have come to pray, to cry in some of the special places, in front of the images. They come during their lunchtime. So, we began to create spaces for the sacrament of reconciliation. For many it’s the conversation. This is actually an unresolved issue, because the cathedral doesn’t have upstairs windowed sections that can be transformed into little offices like some European, French cathedrals, but because they had smaller side altars, they could be closed off. I’ve been thinking about a small corner, but I can’t find it, so I have no other choice than to be in the confessional. In winter, I think it’ll be a cold, but oh well, I have nowhere else.”
Experiencing a moment of beauty
“The poor look for a moment of beauty in baptisms and weddings. At the beginning I had some preconceived ideas about this but now I’m starting to change the way I see this in my pastoral work. At the beginning, I’d say, “no, let’s not go overboard,” searching for the simplicity of City Bell, for example, because it was an austere space. Here, I’ve had to learn to share their experience of self-expression which also includes pomp, not because of its form that seems like pomp to us, but for them, the attention to detail, the photographs are a unique opportunity. For these people, it’s the only day of beauty they experience, so they buy everything: candles, clothes, they spend everything on weddings or the baptism of their children. There is more pomp to the weddings, especially if they come after years of living together, but it’s something that marks this great step they’re taking.”
“Now we also have confessors upstairs in the afternoon, from 4-7pm as well as in the mornings. I managed to find great priests who were alone, or semi-retired. The idea is to offer various things, for all tastes, so that they can be means of encounter with everyone in an integrated way, the idea is to integrate. I still need to work on the cultural aspect, that’s another idea, we want to develop the musical aspect. There was already something, but very little, and there is so much we can do here because the city already has a cultural movement, but there is a lack of space because the theatre has been closed for a year and a half. Various ideas emerged and now we have to coordinate these, repeat your great initiative with the children’s choir. I’ve already started working a bit with this.
Pastoral work with the collaborators
My key project is to enshrine the cathedral, create a place for spirituality and the personal content that accompanies it, the content, the attachments, creating attachments. It’s also a little about aesthetics, because I like that, to change the look of things, organize the font, organize everything, from a simple “no entry” sign … so that everything has a standardized look.
Victor used to work here as the cleaner. Now I have him attending a flower arranging course which he’s loving and he’s learning to arrange the flowers. This is also human development. The cleaner now arranges flowers, this is something that uplifts him. There are many people who work at the cathedral, police, a guard, and everyone has their duties, which I have personally given them. I recently left at night and went to visit a home in the neighbourhood to ask them to help me with a couples’ group. I had dinner with them, I’d never left here. But the purpose was to create attachments with those who work here, with the police here, who are the first to know everything about the priest. After they had been upset because they didn’t have a contract, I started by building a relationship with them. My relationship with them is also changing, day by day.
Just now when I arrived, I was told that people were waiting for me and they said: “Father, there are four people waiting and one is German!” The ones who told me were the ladies who were here cleaning. I told the painter: “Make me a mate, and he made one…”. It’s all about attachments.
The shrine in the shadow of the cathedral and the family at its service
I always celebrate Mass on Wednesday afternoons at the shrine. This supports interiorly, of course, firstly because the family is small, but I also tell them that I need them. The extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist are helping me, the Legion of Mary helps me on Sundays, Deacon Carlos Lombardi from the Family Federation does the baptisms. My course brother will also come one Sunday a month to do baptisms. While I’m celebrating Mass in the chapel below, he is baptizing upstairs. Let’s see if people want this. I wanted to arrange some flowers and realized that I didn’t have a vase, so I went to ask the Sisters for help. It’s the philosophy of: If I’m lacking something at home, I’ll go and ask my neighbour. We’ve been given so much because the shrine remains a central point that belongs to the cathedral.
Transcription: Glaucia Ramírez, Ciudad del Este, Paraguay. Editing: Maria Fischer Final edit: Eduardo Shelley
Original: Spanish, 14 July. Translation: Sarah-Leah Pimentel, Cape Town, South Africa