A Place to Encounter: Religion and Memory in Argentina

By: Devin MacGoy

September 29, 2018

With our right palms open, thumping our chests to imitate the rhythm of a heart beat, a woman chants out in a strong voice from within the crowd, "¡Un oído en la Palabra, Aleluya! … ¡Y el otro oído en el Pueblo, Aleluya!" ("One ear to the Word of God, Alleluia! … And the other to the People, Alleluia!"). The hundreds of worshipers in the congregation call back, hearts beating in unison.

This powerful experience is an effective snapshot of the mission of the Church of the Holy Cross, which is located in the center of a middle-class neighborhood in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The church, throughout its long and tumultuous history, has worked to unify the Gospel message of social justice with its mission of caring for immigrants and the poor.

During one of my first visits to the Church of the Holy Cross, the community was celebrating the Festival of Identity, a weekend of reflection on the mission of the church in this grand metropolis of 13 million people. As part of the Mass that Sunday, the typical Bible readings were replaced with small group discussions surrounding the question, "What does our community value?" This exercise first demonstrates the active nature of the faith of this Catholic congregation. Unlike most church services that I have attended across the United States, at the Church of the Holy Cross it is impossible to remain anonymous. One cannot simply settle into the pew, shielded by the sea of people in the congregation. Rather the word comes alive through the dialogue of the community. The priest even called on people to share with the whole congregation.

Secondly, the responses of each group to the question "What do we value?" demonstrate just what kind of community this is. Each group's responses were written on slips of paper and taped to a poster behind the altar for all to see. And all the responses highlighted the themes of engaging with the community, welcoming "the other," opening the door to all, encountering both God and your fellow human being and remembering where we have been so that we can more completely focus on where we are going.

Staying true to its identity, the Church of the Holy Cross vigorously leverages its history to engage with its present and prepare for its future. During the Civic-Military Dictatorship of 1976-1983, which the Argentines call "la última dictadura" ("the last dictatorship," because there have been so many), the Catholic Church was severely divided as more than 30,000 people were "disappeared" by the military regime—often with American support—for suspected leftist political leanings. The Catholic hierarchy enjoyed a privileged position in the dictatorship; many members of the genocidal military regime considered themselves observant Catholics. But at the same time, hundreds of priests, nuns, and lay people who were proponents of workers' rights or were ministering in the villas miserias—the slums of Buenos Aires—were disappeared, which usually meant kidnapped, imprisoned, tortured, and thrown out of planes into the Río de la Plata.

Such was the story of two French nuns and several parishioners that frequented the Church of the Holy Cross. During the dictatorship, the church served as a meeting place for family members of the disappeared to plan their next actions to find their loved ones and pressure the government to end the persecution. On December 8, 1977, during one of these meetings, members of the armed forces broke into the church and kidnapped several people. Several other members of the parish were kidnapped over the next two days, including the founders of the human rights group the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (Esther Ballestrino de Careaga, María Eugenia Ponce de Bianco and Azucena Villaflor de De Vincenti) and two French nuns (Alice Domon and Léonie Duquet). All were held at the infamous clandestine detention center in the Naval Mechanics School (Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada, ESMA) and eventually drugged and thrown into the sea as part of the military's "death flights." Their remains were later identified and buried outside the Church of the Holy Cross as part of Argentina's efforts to reconcile with its history. Today, there are many posters around the Church with photos of the disappeared, declaring that they will always be remembered and that their fight for human rights will continue in the community of the Church.

By the end of the dictatorship in 1983, more than a hundred Catholic religious workers had been killed. The community at the Church of the Holy Cross encourages us to grapple with this history: that of the complicit members of the Church hierarchy and the story of those who lost their lives working for social justice. This legacy reflects the identity that binds together the parishioners of this church. It is a space to engage with faith, the community, and the memory of the painful history of Argentina.

One of the posters placed prominently at the front of the church is a sheet with a spray painted quote that inspires reflection: 

Memory of the joys that invite us to rejoice, memory of the pain called to heal, memory of the dreams that push us to move forward, and memory of the blood that tells us, 'Never again!'

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