WHEN Argentina defaulted on its debt repayments in December 2001, the country was plunged into crisis. Overnight, the peso was devalued by a third. From parity with the dollar, it became – and remains – three pesos to the dollar.
While those in the know had time to move their money abroad, most people with savings suddenly found that their value had been drastically reduced. Chaos reigned, President Menem fled into exile, the shops were targeted by looters, and the entire country’s stability was called into question.
Dark days indeed, with the poor, as ever, suffering most, due to rising unemployment and higher prices. Fortunately, order has been restored politically even if the peso is still weak, and the current government are attempting to re-structure their debt with the World Bank.
One of the policies of the 1990s government was to sell off all the country’s assets and to privatise state companies. This has led to the ludicrous situation, for instance, where Argentina now exports the oil it produces and then buys it back.
Public transport was also privatised, so it was interesting to note, on my visit to Sr Brigida Fahy in the Cuartel Quinto parish in greater Buenos Aires, that the Irish nun insisted on travelling on the local Colmenar (Beehive) Co-Op bus. This bus is under threat from the private bus companies, but it has the support of the public.
The Colmenar, apart from its buses, also provides cheap drugs, food for the food centres, and, in May 2002, inaugurated a school which trains the poor to grow their own vegetables. “They are a light in the darkness when everything around is dying,” said Sr Brigida. “If the co-op is not a sign of faith and hope in the middle of despair I don’t know what is.”
Self-sufficiency is one of the lessons the nuns pass on to their parishioners and it was evident even while I was there. Two young boys, Nicholas (12) and Gaston (9) called, looking for cardboard, plastic, bottles – anything that could be re-cycled. They were on their summer holidays (which take in December, January and February), but Sr Brigida assured me that, during school term, they go out collecting each day on their return from school.
This sense of responsibility from such young boys was impressive. Their peers in Ireland are more likely to be playing computer games or watching TV and would likely show disdain if they were asked to even tidy their rooms, never mind go out and help put the bread on the table.
“At the beginning everyone asked me how could you live with these people,” said Sr Brigida, “but you know that the Kingdom of God is there already and you help it to flower. The people are there and the faith is there and you encourage it.
“The people in these places are written off, but when you come, you see the richness of what they have if given a little help to get a start.
“This is the longest we have been in one place – 23 years. Usually we stay 14 to 16 years, but this area has grown out of all proportion.”
However, Sr Brigida is not blind to the problems around her – and especially those within her own community. “Religious life is at a moment of crisis,” she explained.
She finds in her dialogue with younger religious that the challenge is about values, with even the Eucharist questioned. “Some sisters don’t go to Mass,” she admitted, “and won’t work in a parish because of the machismo of the priests – they refuse to be slaves to the parish priest.”
On the other hand, she is glad she is in a diocese which insists on parents taking an active interest in their child’s First Communion.
“In the culture here, people don’t get married, they live together and have children, and when the child is nine we get the parents (one or both, but usually the mother) to a meeting once a week. We put one or two of the parents in charge of co-ordinating each group, and they talk about the Mass, the Eucharist, and that’s very good for them because often it’s the first time they have been asked their opinions of things like that.
“Then they are given the teaching of the church, and they have to go home and give that to their children in their own language.” There is certainly an echo here of “the people evangelise the people” alluded to by the Latin American bishops.
And the women are not without their wiles in drawing their menfolk into the equation. “There is a neighbouring barrio which mainly consists of Paraguayans,” said Sr Brigida. “They are very religious, but the women are at the men’s beck and call. When it comes to catechesis, the women pretend they can’t read so that the men have to read the documents.”
Having been attracted to convent life by the nuns who taught her in Taylor’s Hill back in the 1950s, I asked Sr Brigida where she gets the inspiration for her work now.
“My big devotion here is to Our Lady of Guadelupe, who appeared to Juan Diego in Mexico. He was an Indian, marginalised, and she asked him to go to the Bishop with a message. He did, but he was left outside, so he went back to Our Lady and asked her to send someone else, but she said ‘No, you do it’.
“I see an echo there. It’s important for people to see that they have a value. For me, she is someone very special, a great message, a cultural thing to break down barriers, and the hope that gives you to bring life to the people.
“Her message is my message now: the whole thing of the marginalised and living with them, with the rawness of life, converts you to another way of thinking, of living.
“Insertion, being with the people who suffer from all the neo-liberalism of the system, suffering from the consequences of selling Argentina and the debt – it is like keeping their heads above water.
“These people, who have no quality of life, barely exist. But they are a constant challenge to me as a Christian to open up at the way other people live their Christianity.”
Sr Padraigin McKenna from Ballymena, who has spent the last ten years in Brazil, had a slightly different take on things. “Among my people there is no quantity of life, but there’s plenty of quality,” she said. “Some of the houses we go into – and they might be only two rooms – have no tables, no chairs, no beds, but they will share what they have got with you. That, to me, is quality.”
She has been working in Iguape in the poorest part of the state of Sao Paolo, a sparsely populated region. “Iguape is a fishing port where the African slaves first came to Brazil 500 years ago. We have two different types of ministries – urban and rural. We have 23 Basic Christian Communities – eight in the town and the rest in the country.
“Our pastoral work includes mission animation, youth, Bible study, communications and pastoral of the child, a programme which began in Brazil and is now worldwide. We have a team of five working with the priests. The main thing is formation: human development in all areas.”
I asked the nuns if they were ever bored and was met with derision. “We’ve no time for it,” said Sr Brigida, while Sr Padraigin responded: “We wouldn’t know where the day goes, and besides we wouldn’t ever have a normal day.”
In Latin America there is a not so subtle discrimination against the native and the mestizo (of mixed native and European blood). This isn’t alien to the church either, and may explain why there have been so few vocations among the natives. For a start, they weren’t encouraged.
Sr Padraigin told me the story of the Basilica which was built in Iguape. The labour was performed by the natives, but on its completion they weren’t allowed inside. So they built their own church.
“It was an advantage to me to have experienced discrimination in Northern Ireland,” she said. “Because I had suffered in the same way, it helped me to be more compassionate to people. One big difference, though, is education. Our family was all very keen on education but in Brazil people don’t have the means or the money. I have been trying for ten years to get people to fight for third level education in Iguape but still nothing.”
Part of the problem with getting anything done in these countries is the corruption, which is rampant. And it’s a corruption which extends to the police, so that the poor are intimidated.
Sr Padraigin sees this as an opportunity. “We can stand up for people who are too frightened to stand up for themselves. The worst that can happen to us is that we’ll be deported,” she chuckles.
Incidentally, she sees priests from South America going to Ireland in the future. “And they will be a help to the church there with their openness to lay people.”
Vocations to female religious orders have been in decline in Ireland, but any young lady who would like a challenge in the Lord’s vineyard would certainly find it in Argentina or Brazil. And if it is the negative connotation of those vows you have to make which gives you pause, Sr Padraigin explained them in a more positive fashion: “Look at them like this: poverty is sharing; chastity is loving everyone, and obedience is solidarity.”
Putting that into practice on a daily basis, among poor and marginalised Christians, is what makes life worth living for Sr Brigida and Sr Padraigin.