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The politics behind Argentina’s episcopal succession crisis

On May 27, 2024, the Archbishop Gabriel Mestre of La Plata, Argentina, made public his resignation as archbishop, which came after just 10 months in office. 

The resignation was quite surprising, considering that Mestre is only 55 years old and enjoyed the apparent trust of Pope Francis. He had also governed previously the Diocese of Mar del Plata for 6 years, in what seemed a successful term. 

Argentine Archbishop Gabriel Antonio Mestre. CELAM via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

But in the letter announcing his resignation, Mestre said it had come at the pope’s request.

The archbishop explained that Francis had summoned him to Rome to “dialogue about some aspects of the Diocese of Mar del Plata after my transfer to the Archdiocese of La Plata upon being appointed metropolitan archbishop.” 

"After confronting some different perceptions of what happened in the Diocese of Mar del Plata from November 2023 to the present, Pope Francis asked me to resign from the See of La Plata," he said. 

But according to local sources, Mestre’s resignation as La Plata’s archbishop is connected to a complicated succession fight in the Diocese of Mar del Plata.


Eight months in La Plata 

Mestre was appointed archbishop of La Plata on July 28, 2023, taking possession of his see in September, the same month his predecessor, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, started work as prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. 

Most local observers regarded La Plata a tough job. 

The Archdiocese of La Plata is generally seen as having a “conservative” profile, with a succession of bishops to match it since the 1970s. 

Before the appointment of Fernández, a close collaborator of Francis’, the archdiocese was led by Archbishop Héctor Aguer, perhaps the bishop who has been most critical of Francis in his homeland. 

The pope accepted Aguer’s resignation in 2018, shortly after he turned 75. But while Fernández was never likely to gel with the local clergy, Francis was believed to want a trusted man in the third most prominent see in the country, after Buenos Aires and Córdoba. 

“Fernández was not loved one bit in La Plata, neither among the clergy nor the faithful,” a source close to the archdiocesan chancery told The Pillar

“And it was understood that Mestre arrived [to La Plata] at the suggestion of Fernández.” 

Before he was appointed to the La Plata archdiocese, Mestre governed the Diocese of Mar del Plata for six years and was also considered close to Francis and his pastoral priorities, like Fernández. 

But unlike Fernandez, Mestre managed to win over the clergy of the Archdiocese of La Plata very early in his tenure in the archdiocese.

 “He had become a very beloved archbishop in a very short time,” one La Plata priest told The Pillar.

The revolving door of Mar del Plata 

But with local clergy happy with their new archbishop, Mestre did have problems in his former diocese, Mar del Plata. 

After Mestre's departure for La Plata, the Diocese of Mar del Plata became a revolving door of episcopal appointments. 

Bishop José María Baliña, auxiliary of Buenos Aires, was first to be appointed, on Nov. 21, 2023. 

But on Dec.13, Baliña resigned before he could be installed as bishop. 

Baliña said in a public letter that he was facing serious health issues following a retinal detachment, two complicated surgeries, and one more scheduled. 

The risk of losing his sight in the short term was high, he said, which precipitated his decision. 

“When my appointment was published, I received such an avalanche of greetings, reports and recommendations that I realized that I was not in a position to take on the mission there. After discerning it better and consulting with the Holy See, I decided to present my resignation,” he said. 

Sources close to the appointment and resignation told The Pillar that there was nothing unusual about Baliña's resignation. Instead, the bishop has continued to exercise his episcopal ministry as auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires without any role in governance. 

Alongside news of Baliña's resignation, the appointment of his successor, the Claretian Bishop Gustavo Larrazábal, auxiliary of San Juan de Cuyo, was announced. 

But shortly after his appointment, complaints started to circulate against Larrazábal, alleging harassment and abuse of power between 2007 and 2013 in other dioceses. 

A woman originally from Mar del Plata alleged that Larrazábal had harassed her in Buenos Aires, where Larrazábal served at that time. 

When the complaint against Larrazábal surfaced, following his nomination to Mar del Plata, the apostolic nunciature in Argentina published a statement saying that it supported Larrazábal's appointment, against “rumors” that “have no basis.” 

But it was not enough.

On Jan. 17 of this year, Larrazábal presented his resignation.

Auxiliary Bishop Ernesto Giobando, SJ of Buenos Aires, was named apostolic administrator of the Mar del Plata diocese — the third bishop assigned to lead the diocese since Mestre. 

The timeline of the nuncio’s emphatic defense of Larrazábal, followed by his resignation, left lingering questions for many Catholics.

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A conspiracy? 

One of the first measures that Giobando took as apostolic administrator of Mar del Plata was to open an investigation into the vicar general of the diocese, Fr. Luis Albóniga, over his short role as diocesan administrator, in the period after Mestre left for La Plata. 

Albóniga was a close collaborator of Mestre and, according to local media, his preferred candidate to succeed him. 

Amid the investigation, Albóniga was temporarily sent to serve in the Diocese of Jujuy, more than 1,300 miles away. 

Sources close to the situation told The Pillar that Albóniga was critical of the governance of Mar del Plata after Mestre’s departure, which became a factor in his departure for Jujuy. 

But the deeper reason could be something else, several local sources explained.  

According to local media reports, a group of influential people from the diocese, close to Archbishop Mestre, pushed to have Albóniga named as bishop after Baliña's resignation. 

This group is alleged to have been behind the leak of the complaints against Larrazábal, meant to force his resignation and clear the way for Albóniga. 

But after Francis appointed Giobando – the pope’s former student at the Jesuit seminary in Buenos Aires – as apostolic administrator, the lobbying operation for Albóniga went up a gear. 

On March 28, during the Chrism Mass, a group appeared at the Cathedral of Mar del Plata with signs addressed to the apostolic administrator, demanding Albóniga’s return to the diocese. 

Catholics in de Mar del Plata demonstrating for Fr. Luis Albóniga during the Chrism Mass. Image via La Capital de Mar del Plata.

In addition, the newspaper La Capital – perhaps the most widely read in Mar del Plata – published a letter of support from Albóniga asking for his quick return and stating that “since the sad news [of his departure for Jujuy] became known, it has not stopped being in the mouths and in the hearts” of all the parishioners. 

“There is tremendous consternation, as well as – it must be said – displeasure at the decision taken and the way in which it was executed,” said the letter, which was signed by a group of local Catholics, including businessman Florencio Aldrey, owner of the newspaper. 

La Capital had previously published an editorial in December questioning Larrazábal's appointment before, on January 9, reporting the complaints against Larrazábal for harassment and abuse of power. 

This, according to local sources, is what led Francis to summon Mestre to Rome to discuss the situation. 

During that conversation, The Pillar was told, there was disagreement about Mestre's role in Larrazábal's resignation and the signs of support for Albóniga but Francis asked Mestre to resign. 

While none of the sources close to the archbishop and the diocese who spoke to The Pillar claimed first-hand knowledge of Mestre acting to coordinate or encourage the demonstrations for Albóniga’s return to Mar del Plata or in the resurfacing of the complaints against Larrazábal. However, they all pointed to Albóniga serving as the archbishop’s vicar general in the diocese for almost all of Mestre's tenure. 

Local media has also reported that Mestre requested Albóniga’s appointment as auxiliary bishop for the diocese in 2019, although the Vatican decided to appoint another priest, the Augustinian Darío Quintana. 

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The future of La Plata and Mar del Plata 

Now, with the papally-requested resignation of Mestre, Francis has two important vacancies to fill: first, a diocese that has already had two failed nominations and, second, the third most important archdiocese in the country. 

Given the considerable instability in both dioceses following the spate of resignations, it would make sense if the pope chooses to allow the waters to calm before making any new appointments. 

The resignations in Mar del Plata also suggest that there have been problems with the background review processes for prospective episcopal appointments in Argentina. Baliña's health problems were well known before his appointment and the complaint against Larrazábal, although it did not proceed, was certainly known to his religious superiors and congregation. 

Even if those complaints were not deemed credible, the decision to appoint Larrazábal without a plan to mitigate their resurfacing appears questionable, given his subsequent resignation. 

The situation is perhaps even more complex in La Plata. It is an archdiocese whose clergy are widely accepted to have a pastoral and theological character different from that of Francis. Bishops like Mestre, who managed to earn the trust of a conservative clergy while himself embodying a style closer to the pope’s, do not grow on trees. 

Francis could find himself forced to choose between appointing a bishop with an outlook and character more closely resembling the archdiocese, or opting for someone he trusts personally, but who might find it much harder to settle into office. 

For now, La Plata is being led by its most senior auxiliary, Bishop Alberto Bochaney, as apostolic administrator. Bochaney was made auxiliary under Archbishop Aguer in 2013 and the signs so far suggest he is no less invested in the succession crisis in both dioceses. 

As Bochaney presided over the Corpus Christi celebration in La Plata last week, faithful attended the celebration with banners in support of Mestre and Albóniga. In the intentions of the Mass, special prayers were offered “for Mons. Gabriel Mestre, Father Luis Albóniga and all the clergy, so that this time of trial may also be a 'time of grace' for them.” 

Bochaney announced, through tears, in a speech he read after the Mass, that Mestre would remain in La Plata until the appointment of the next archbishop. 

“He has decided to withdraw a little. He has asked us not to say goodbye or send greetings. For example, I had specially invited him to come to this Eucharist and he told me that he did not want to be present so as not to be a cause of distraction," Bochaney said.

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