This week saw the release of the book Cuarentena (“Quarantine”), a diary by journalist Alver Metalli on how people lived the coronavirus confinement in one of the shantytowns on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.
The following is Novena’s unofficial translation of Pope Francis’ prologue.
It will do us good to read this diary that tells the day by day of a “quarantine” lived in a slum where a group of priests whom I love very much work; they are inspired by a genuine faith in Jesus Christ and by a great love for these poor people who live in shacks and hovels on the margins of society.
The author of the small but precious book is an Italian-Argentinean journalist, Alver Metalli. Six years ago he left behind his beautiful house in a residential neighborhood of Buenos Aires to go live among the shanties of “La Cárcova”.
He was attracted by the testimony of Father Pepe [Di Paola – an Argentinian ‘slum priest’ known for his commitment to the poor and marginalised – ed.] and because he felt that in this way he could better realise, with joy, his Christian vocation matured in the spiritual school of Father Giussani and his Memores [an association of lay faithful that live vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and form part of the Communion and Liberation movement – ed.].
The diary does not only tell the dramatic stories of many of the shanty town’s women and men, in the midst of drugs, violence and misery. It also shows us the beautiful humanity of so many people who, around the parish, are continually trying to help those who are most in need.
Every day a plate of hot food is distributed to those who no longer even have money to buy something to eat: more than two thousand rations, we learn from the diary notes. The volunteers who prepare the food and distribute it do not come from the well-to-do neighbourhoods; most are local people, humble people who suffer the consequences of the pandemic just like their neighbours.
“There are builders”, says Alver, “domestic workers, women who work in well-to-do houses in the neighboring suburbs, public servants, some workers in the transportation sector and many others who are unemployed and live as changas, as Argentines call the precarious jobs that help them make ends meet. All of them are out of work and dedicate their time and energy to meeting the needs of others”.
This is another aspect that the pandemic has brought to light: the resources of a popular religiosity that inspires the life of the people of the slums with the values of solidarity and closeness, and makes me say that sometimes these places so little taken into account have much to teach the rest of the city.
This religiosity, or popular piety, as Paul VI said so well in Evangelii Nuntiandi, “manifests a thirst for God which only the simple and poor can know”.
The solidary meals – the book says – are not the only shows of charity they practice in the slums. There is a home for alcoholics and a half-way house [Hogar de Cristo – lit. “Home of Christ” – ed.] for those who have fallen into the clutches of drugs. There are also the “little old people” [viejitos – a term of affection – ed.] whom they try to protect from a cruel virus that, everywhere in the world, has wreaked havoc precisely among the oldest and most fragile people.
“Father Pepe has sent for them, every last one, even in the remotest corners of the slum. There are some who live alone, in precarious shacks, cold in winter and stifling in summer, fed by the compassion of their neighbours. Others in large family nuclei, as it should be, with women and children, in small spaces where it is impossible to maintain the social distancing recommended by the health authorities for the quarantine… Father Pepe has prepared for them a place where they can stay until the ‘plague’ is over”.
The author of the e-book has decided to allocate the income from its publication precisely to support the home for the elderly.
One more reason to read and spread this diary which shows us the exciting and concrete face of “a poor Church for the poor”.
The verses of an Italian singer-songwriter, Fabrizio de André, tell of notorious neighbourhoods where “the sun of the Good Lord does not offer its rays” because it is too busy “giving warmth to people from other places”.
The book, instead, makes us see – through the gift of testimony – that there is no place, however dark it may be, where a ray of the good God cannot reach to warm some hearts and give light to lives that would otherwise remain invisible.