Pope Francis' service to poor began on Villa 21

Jim Gardner Image
Tuesday, August 18, 2015
VIDEO: Jim Gardner reports: Pope Francis' service to poor began on Villa 21
The future pope saw firsthand the effects of poverty, life in the slums of Buenos Aires, and how the Church could be a savior.

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (WPVI) -- When Pope Francis comes to Philadelphia, he will no doubt talk about - and to - the poor.

When he became a cardinal in 2001, then-Jorge Bergoglia talked about his four pillars, and the first was a personal closeness to and service to the poor.

Of course, popes before Francis have preached on behalf of the poor, but Francis brings a certain credibility to this because he has walked the walk.

We walked down one of the main streets of Villa 21.

The people of Buenos Aires use the word slum to describe 20 distinct neighborhoods. Villa 21 is the biggest with about 50,000 residents.

Archbishop Bergoglio was a regular visitor here, traveling here on the subway to, as he put it, bring the sacristy to the street.

Bergoglio would walk these streets filled with stray dogs and impoverished people once a month, giving blessings, catching up with family stories, and in the words of one local priest here, 'filling his lungs with the oxygen to think about what the church should be.'

Of course, he also loved watching the kids play soccer.

Soccer has always been one of Francis' greatest passions. To take that passion, and put it on the streets of this city's poorest areas, is something very special.

The Catholic Church says the poverty rate in Buenos Aires is 27%. As archbishop, Bergoglio wanted his priests to serve in the slums.

One of those priests is Father Lorenzo de Vedia. He is known as Toto.

He is the chief pastor in the parish of Virgin Caacupe. It is a community largely of Paraguayan immigrants.

Both Toto and his church are bedrocks of Villa 21. Toto focuses much of his time and effort on children because, he says, many of them are from broken homes with one missing parent or two.

He says it's then up to his church to become their family.

Archbishop Bergoglio often said he wanted faith to come alive in Buenos Aires.

Toto explained that historically, the Church has existed separately from the living of life, but Francis wants to bring them together.

The Church becoming the flesh of life, helping someone broken by drugs, in the hospital, abandoned in the street is what Francis means by religion, Toto says.

We crashed a serious card game before we left Villa 21.

I still don't know exactly what we were playing, but nobody seemed to mind.

These are people who seem to care about their faith and each other.

Antoliana Rigoberto, my playing partner, told me that Archbishop Bergoglio was an anchor, a rock in the slum, in Villa 21.

It seemed to me that the people we met are proud that their Bergoglio is Pope, but they're also sorry they've lost him as their Archbishop.

After all, they say, he loves the poor.