Pope Francis announced last month that Bishop Jorge García Cuerva will become the new Archbishop of Buenos Aires. The 55-year-old bishop will be installed July 15 as leader of the most well-known Argentine see — one of particular importance in the Francis papacy, because Francis himself was the archbishop of Buenos Aires before he was elected pope.
García Cuerva’s appointment has been met with surprise in Argentina — he is not a high-profile bishop in his own country, and his alleged ties to sectors of the country’s political left have become the subject of controversy.
But García Cuerva, known for his work in the “villas” — the most vulnerable and impoverished neighborhoods in Argentina — has a big job ahead. He’ll lead the Church across a politically divided country, and aim to bring unity.
Pope Francis seems to believe he’s the man to do it, while his fellow Argentines tell The Pillar that García Cuerva will face a hard road.
When it came May 26, the appointment surprised both locals in Argentina, and those watching the archdiocese from further afield.
García Cuerva was bishop of Río Gallegos, Argentina's southernmost diocese, covering the provinces of Santa Cruz and Tierra del Fuego. Leading one of the world’s closest dioceses to the South Pole, García Cuerva earned the nickname of the“bishop of the end of the world.”
And the moniker fit — Santa Cruz is the second-largest province in Argentina, but also the second most unpopulated, after Tierra del Fuego. Both were Garcia Cuerva’s territory, in the remotest parts of Argentina.
“Río Gallegos is about 1,500 miles from Buenos Aires, you don't even really get news from there unless something very scandalous happens,” Emilio Pintos, professor of Catholic social teaching at the Argentine Catholic University, told The Pillar.
Given his remote outpost, García Cueva was not among the bishops that most Church-watchers considered likely to replace the outgoing Cardinal Mario Poli.
More commonly referenced had been Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández of La Plata, or Archbishop Carlos Aspiroz of Bahía Blanca — both men appointed by the pope in their current dioceses, and both men who enjoy the pope’s confidence.
“His age was also surprising. He arrived to be the Argentine primate at only 55, so he could govern his archdiocese for 20 years. His predecessor, Cardinal Poli, arrived at the age of 66, and Francis himself arrived at the age of 62, so that when he was elected pope he had exceeded the retirement age by a couple of years,” said Mariano de Vedia, a religion reporter at La Nacion, one of Argentina’s leading newspapers.
But knowing a little about Bishop García Cuerva — his formation, his pastoral priorities and his leadership style — it now seems obvious why he would be a Francis choice. While the appointment came as a surprise, it might have well have been hidden in plain sight.
The ‘villero priest’
García Cuerva was born in 1968 into a middle-class family with a military past; he was a law student before he entered the seminary — his vocation came after he was moved by missionary experiences in the impoverished villas of the Argentine city of Tigre.
Moved by the poverty and vulnerability in Tigre’s villas, he decided to drop out of law school and enter the seminary for the Diocese of San Isidro, where Bishop Jorge Casaretto had formed a team of villero priests, who led parishes in the villas of San Isidro and lived in them.
“For decades, the Church in Argentina felt the erosion of its membership on two sides: in the more affluent sectors due to religious indifferentism, and in the working class, towards evangelical Protestantism. The Church realized that if it did not commit itself and was not part of the lives of those people, they would lose the faith. So the Church began to train priests to live in the villas,” Pintos told The Pillar.
“Near Buenos Aires, improvised, precarious settlements have been developing, as in other large Argentine cities, for decades. For that reason, in recent decades both in Buenos Aires, in its suffragan dioceses, and in other Argentine cities, priests have begun to establish themselves in the heart of these villas, where they exercise their ministry from a chapel or a parish in the middle of the villa. The most emblematic villero priest was Father Mujica, who was assassinated at a time of political turmoil in Argentina, as he left Mass in 1973,” Mariano de Vedia told The Pillar.
“Following his example, many priests have received training to settle in the villas, and the bishops usually have priests who are assigned exclusively to carry out pastoral work in those areas, as was the case with García Cuerva. The pastoral work here also implies helping with material issues, such as food assistance, opening soup kitchens, offering school support, meeting the basic needs of unemployed families, support so that children do not fall into drugs and assistance to addicts in their recovery,” he added.
“These priests not only had their parishes there, but also lived among the poor in the same conditions as them. … García Cuerva himself was a villa priest for many years in San Isidro, and later the auxiliary bishop of Lomas de Zamora. Both are part of greater Buenos Aires and have very high levels of poverty,” he added.
The social role of villero priests in Argentina is widely known, to such an extent that they tend to be mediators in civil disputes and reach places where the country's own authorities do not.
“One of my sons worked [as a priest] in one of the largest villas in Buenos Aires, and when a political leader wanted to enter the villa for some activity, the parish pastor and the Evangelical preacher were always consulted: to find out if it was prudent, and if there was going to be a drug shooting while they were visiting.”
“In fact, when the debate on drug decriminalization began in Argentina, the first to issue a document condemning a possible approval was a group of priests from the slums,” said Pintos.
In 1997, García Cuerva was ordained by Casaretto, and began 20 years of villero parish ministry.
At the same time, he worked as a chaplain for various prisons around the province of Buenos Aires.
In 2017, Pope Francis named him auxiliary bishop of Lomas de Zamora, another diocese of metropolitan Buenos Aires. In his two years in the Lomas de Zamora diocese, García Cuerva would become famous for continuing to live in a small house in one of the town's villas.
His episcopal coat of arms is perhaps the clearest demonstration of his priorities as bishop — and it is also a good symbol of why Francisco chose him as the next Archbishop of Buenos Aires.
In addition to the motto“Do not turn your face away from the poor”, it is possible to see that behind the cross of the coat of arms, there is a corrugated metal roof, a chapa as they call it in Argentina—the roofing material of many houses in the villas where García Cuerva served.
The bishop's pectoral cross also has a small piece of sheet metal inserted, from a villa house in which he had lived, along with a small vial of dirt from the soccer field of the town of La Cava, where he was a parish priest.
But his pastoral profile should not suggest that García Cuerva is without an intellectual life. People who know him well have defined the bishop as a“nerd,” since while working as a parish priest in the villas, he earned licentiates in both Church history and in canon law, and he completed the civil law degree he’d abandoned for the seminary, becoming a civil lawyer in 2009.
“García Cuerva is well known as a theologian and professor. Within the episcopate he has already been entrusted with the drafting of important documents. It has a very unusual profile, because villero priests tend to get absorbed by their pastoral task, which is very demanding, and they sometimes neglect their intellectual formation,” de Vedia told The Pillar.
The diocese at the end of the world
In 2019, Pope Francis named Garcia Cuerva the Bishop of Río Gallegos, the famous “diocese of the end of the world.”
“It is one of the largest dioceses in Argentina and the least populated, it covers two Argentine provinces: the province of Santa Cruz, whose capital is Río Gallegos, and the province of Tierra del Fuego, which is the last one … after that comes Antarctica,” Bishop Fabián González Balsa, auxiliary bishop of Río Gallegos since 2022, told The Pillar.
“We have a little more than 525,000 people who live in the diocese in an area as large as the entire province of Buenos Aires, which is a province with a huge population and many dioceses — seven in total — and many priests to cover it. We have only one diocese for all this territory,” Bishop Balsa added.
González Balsa was ordained in the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires. But in 2009, he asked then-Cardinal Bergoglio to be sent as a missionary to the Diocese of Río Gallegos, which, despite its massive territory, has only 39 priests.
“Here you travel and work a lot. I am in the north of the province of Santa Cruz, in a town called Las Heras, which is an oil and gas area, for which there is a lot of immigration of technicians from the oil industry, especially Venezuelans,” added González Balsa.
“Because of its proximity to Antarctica, it is a very cold and windy area, it is a very different reality from the rest of Argentina. But, as in all of Argentina, there is a lot of poverty,” the bishop said.
”The priestly task is very busy and very intense, especially when accompanying Bishop García Cuerva — who is not a man to sit still.”
But in Río Gallegos, García Cuerva faced a very different reality from his pastoral experience in the villas.
From the overpopulated villas of the Buenos Aires suburbs, he passed to the perpetual winter and the vast expanse of southern Argentina. But the bishop himself didn’t change, his former auxiliary said.
“That mentality of the villero priest transferred her to this diocese. Always looking for peripheries, even though we have a very different reality. But, deep down, the needs – spiritual and material – are the same. He visited young people who were recovering from drug addiction, he visited the detention centers, the most humble neighborhoods in all the towns of the diocese,” added González Balsa.
“This place is the end of the world, but the bishop continued with that spirit of being attentive to the brother who is in need. The forms change, but the task of the priest remains the same: beautiful and challenging,” he said.
When he was appointed back to Buenos Aires last month, García Cuerva told the diocese of Río Gallegos that he had learned from them how to be a diocesan bishop.
“Here, in the diocese at the end of the world, I was learning to be a diocesan bishop together with the people, dreaming together of a field hospital Church, as the pope tells us.”
But the bishop wasn’t only concerned with building a field hospital. He also became known in southern Argentina as a reformer.
García Cuerva became known for applying a zero-tolerance policy for abuse in his diocese. He expelled from priestly life at least three priests accused of child abuse, and collaborated with Argentine authorities in criminal investigations that eventually led to prison sentences.
“It is something very sad and very hard, but I would do it again for the good of the Church. We never have to give up on truth and justice,” he said of those cases.
The appointment of García Cuerva has not come without controversy. Argentina is a highly polarized country politically, the polarization in the country is described as “the crack.”
Much of the politics of the 20th and 21st centuries in Argentina has been dominated by Peronism, a political movement that emerged in the postwar period, founded by General Juan Domingo Perón in search of a third nationalist way between Soviet communism and American capitalism. Peronism has always been characterized by its ideological adaptability, and by the emergence of left and right currents within the movement.
But Perón, who would come to arouse suspicion among the country's Catholics for his messianism and persecution of political dissent, is both a controversial and influential figure in Argentina.
Since the restoration of democracy in Argentina in 1983, a number of national leaders have been left-leaning Peronists, including the Kirchner family, which has dominated the Argentine political scene since the beginning of the 21st century.
Néstor Kirchner, who was governor of Río Gallegos for the Justicialista Party — the party founded by Perón — would become president of Argentina in 2003, promising to expand the role of the state in the economy. His wife, Cristina, would succeed him as president from 2007 until 2015, and then become vice president in 2019.
But the economic crisis that Kirchner inherited in 2003 has never been solved. After a few years of growth, inflation, poverty, the devaluation of the peso and the debt skyrocketed in a process that, with its comings and goings, has not stopped until today.
With the Pope being Argentine, and Buenos Aires his former archdiocese, each step he takes on Argentina is read in a political key—one of the reasons why Francis has avoided returning to their country.
In Argentina’s Church, nobody wants to fall into “the crack” — to become mired in the secular political polarization of the country.
But, for his part, García Cuerva has not been able to avoid it.
Shortly after his appointment as Buenos Aires’ archbishop, a video emerged, of a homily in 2016 – before he was a bishop – at a Mass in honor of Perón's death.
In the video, before an almost entirely Peronist congregation, García Cuerva spoke positively of Peronism, saying: “We all once said: ‘I want to be a Peronist, I gamble on this idea, I want a different country, a different world, I want to be a witness of good news.’”
Garcia Cuerva quoted Perón himself in his homily, speaking against the class struggle.
That has led to a barrage of criticism against García Cuerva — the city of Buenos Aires, for the most part, is a center of anti-Peronist sentiment in the country.
“Whoever spread it seeks to diminish his image,” Pintos told The Pillar.
“What are the characteristics of Buenos Aires? It is a place where Peronism does not win, it is a largely center-right electorate, very anti-Peronist. But metropolitan Buenos Aires, [outside the city itself], where García Cuerva carried out a good part of his pastoral activity, is very Peronist. And so this video spreads just when he is named [to Buenos Aires], seven years after it was recorded, because it is known that this will go down badly,” Pintos added.
“We [the bishops] as public figures are always very exposed, so if you go and bless the place or give a Mass to someone from one side, they tell you that you are from that side; If you do it from those on the other side, they tell you that you are from the other side, it is inevitable,” said Bishop González Balsa.
“If I have a priest friend and I ask him for a private Mass for whatever reason, that priest friend is going to speak with a level of freedom that he possibly wouldn't at a Mass open to the public in his parish; I think that was the context of that homily,” added Pintos.
But critics of García Cuerva have added fuel to the fire by noting that Río Gallegos, where García Cuerva has been a bishop since 2019, is the cradle of the Kirchner brand of Peronism.
“Néstor Kirchner was governor of the province of Santa Cruz, of which Río Gallegos is the capital, for three terms before being elected president in 2002, his wife Cristina was a national senator for the same province, and the current governor is Alicia Kirchner — Nestor’s sister. Many trusted Kirchner ministers and politicians come from [that region],” de Vedia told The Pillar.
Despite the social media fervor, the actual relationship of the Rio Gallegos ecclesiastical hierarchy with Kirchnerism has been, to say the least, complicated.
“Bishop Romanín, who governed the diocese between 2005 and 2012, had many clashes with the Kirchners and the bishop who succeeded him, Bishop D'Annibale, who died suddenly from cancer, always kept a certain distance from the Kirchners. García Cuerva generally followed that trend,” de Vedia said.
“It is a somewhat troubled area because there are many union conflicts, because there is a lot of industry, especially oil and gas, and García Cuerva never wanted to compromise his mediating position between the parties,” he added.
But Garcia Cuerva’s ties with Sergio Massa, a Peronist leader who is the current economy minister in the country, have also been called into question.
Massa was the mayor of Tigre when García Cuerva was a parish priest in the area, and according to Argentine media, the men developed a deep friendship.
In fact, Massa and his wife, Malena Galmarini, attended the installation of García Cuerva in Río Gallegos in 2019.
García Cuerva together with Sergio Massa in his time as a parish priest in Tigre. (Twitter)
“Massa is a man with a certain level of ideological volatility. He started out in politics with a center-right party but when the Peronist President Menem swung to the right in the 90s, Massa ‘converts’ to Peronism,” Pintos told The Pillar.
“Then in the government of Néstor Kirchner he became an important official, but in 2010 he broke with them and became very critical of Kirchnerism, even saying that he was going to put the radical followers of Kirchnerism in prison,” he added.
“Massa helped Macri's [a non-Peronist] victory in 2015, because he launched himself as a third-way candidate and took votes away from Kirchnerism, which made Macri's victory easier. But Macri did not take him into consideration for any position during his presidency, and that caused resentment, such that he eventually returned to supporting Kirchnerism and with the victory of Alberto Fernández in 2019, he became economy minister—and today Argentina has an annualized inflation of 150%,” concluded Pintos.
Since García Cuerva was appointed to Buenos Aires, Massa and Galmarini have not hesitated to show their approval for the appointment of their new archbishop—nor to show the entire world the friendship that, according to them, unites them.
That has not gone down well with García Cuerva, who has faced criticism by denying any ties to Kirchnerism, in an interview with a local media outlet in Río Gallegos.
”Politically, I assure you, I assure you that my position is different, but beyond that, the relationship I had has been very cordial and very helpful to [reach] agreements in the province of Santa Cruz.”
“I am much more friendly with other politicians (...) who have known how to take care of me and have not posted the photos they have with me,” said the archbishop in the interview.
The archbishop added that he has ties and friends across the political spectrum, including with María Eugenia Vidal, the former governor of Buenos Aires and part of the anti-Peronist opposition in Argentina.
“When it comes to thinking about the good of our people, I consider that the Church alone cannot do anything [on its own] and neither can the state, [they need each other].”
In addition, García Cuerva has criticized the economic management of the current government, whose head is Massa, saying that inflation“is a tax on the poor.”
Also in 2021, after an overwhelming legislative defeat of the Kirchner government, he criticized the administration for its management of Covid-19, since members of the government had had preferential access to vaccines and had broken their own quarantine rules.
“When we could not meet, nor vaccinate our grandparents, they were vaccinated and met with each other. They even no longer just [invented] the concept of ‘essential personnel’ but also that of ‘strategic personnel,’ a category which always included them. Because they did not experience this second pandemic, they did not understand what was happening to people,” he said then.
But while García Cuerva is lambasted as a Peronist, the bishop who ordained him and appointed him a villero priest, also came to his defense.
Bishop Jorge Casaretto, emeritus bishop of San Isidro, said in a June interview that García Cuerva did not have and will not have“partisan attitudes.”
Casaretto acknowledged that García Cuerva was a member of Peronism when he entered the seminary:“But all of us who have entered the seminary in some way and had concerns were linked to politics,” he said.
Caseretto denied that García Cuerva continued to be influenced by Peronism as a seminarian.
“It's not what happened to him,” the bishop said.
Garcia Cuerva “strictly complied with the order that his bishop gave him to stop his political militancy,” Pintos told The Pillar.
Other criticisms that have fallen on García Cuerva have been about his links with people from the transgender community. Since 1998, he has worked with transgender-identifying people who have fallen into prostitution.
Given that, in the interview the archbishop said that he was looking to“help them get out of prostitution and be able to enter the labor market.”
In turn, there was criticism because he baptized the twin children of Florencia de la V, an Argentine transgender actress, who had a baby by surrogate.
”They looked for me because I worked with groups of trans people to help them get out of prostitution and have businesses,” he said. “When I asked Florencia why she wanted to baptize them, she told me it was because she wanted them to grow in faith. I don't know how many parents are capable of becoming aware of what baptism means and saying it so clearly,” he added.
“When one lives the Gospel, one does not compromise the Church. You take care of the person, no matter what they do or what they are—that does not mean that you justify it, but that does not mean that you have to abandon the person and stop accompanying them in their search for God,” González Balsa told The Pillar.
“I don't think García Cuerva is looking for great doctrinal changes in the Church, but rather a change of focus. He is open to listening, to dialogue and he has a lot of emphasis on the social, so I think he follows Francis's line,” added Pintos.
García Cuerva’s is one of several recently in which a relatively young bishop was appointed to a metropolitan see — with potential for inclusion in the College of Cardinals.
Already in 2023, the pope has named four other archbishops under the age of 58 to important archdioceses —Tegucigalpa (the primatial see of Honduras), Toronto, Madrid and Brussels.
The intent seems clear: these are men who can shape the Church and its dioceses for decades to come — well beyond Francis' own pontificate.
In addition, in 2021, the pope appointed Garcia Cuerva to the Dicastery for Bishops, which will have an important influence on the future of episcopal appointments in Argentina.
And, almost certainly, he will be made a cardinal and at some point will probably become president of the Argentine bishops' conference.
“It is not easy to deal with the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires. You have to deal with the poverty that the metropolis has, deal with the political power, both in the province, the city and the national, which are all very different. you're going to be fighting constantly. And also because he is the archbishop primate of Argentina, he will have enormous influence in the episcopal conference and the organizations under its charge, like the Argentine Catholic University. It is not an easy thing,” Pintos told The Pillar.
“What I tell you is speculation, but I think that Francis was looking for someone who will be in the archdiocese for a long time, beyond his pontificate. Bergoglio at the time and then Poli, kept a low profile as Archbishops of Buenos Aires. I think Francis wanted someone younger and with more pastoral experience with people on the peripheries,” de Vedia said.
García Cuerva seems to offer that more pastoral and social approach that the pope is looking for. Francis seems to be looking for bishops who will transcend “the crack” and can build bridges in Argentina.
The new Archbishop of Buenos Aires may be the man to do it. But in the month since he was appointed, he has probably learned already just how difficult that will be.