Latin America Witnesses: Mons. Angelelli, “The Romero of Argentina”

Bishop Enrique Ángel Angelelli was killed during the time of the dictatorship in Argentina because of their preferential option for the poor.

A bishop must always “turn one ear to the Gospel and the other to the people.” The Argentine Enrique Angelelli learned this working alongside the members of the GIOC, Christian Youth Workers. It was also his way of working with the campesinos of La Rioja, the outlying diocese at the foot of the mountain where, in 1968, he had moved from being auxiliary bishop of Cordoba. The only trouble was that “turning one ear to the people” was something unacceptable in Argentina in 1976; it made him fair game to the generals.

The roots of the commitment of Mons. Angelelli were quite different: born in Cordoba in 1923, he joined the seminary as a boy and completed his training in Rome where he happened to meet Father Josef Cardijn, the Belgian priest who founded the Young Christian Workers movement. That was the root that young Father Angelelli transplanted into his diocese of Cordoba, teaching the Gospel to the youth starting from the defence of their dignity and their work. In late 1960, Pope John XXIII chose him as auxiliary bishop and, two years later – he was not yet thirty – he would be one of the youngest participants at the Vatican II.

In that great Church experience, – together with the above-mentioned Cardijn, and also figures like Dom Helder Camara – he was immersed in that atmosphere that would lead the Church in Latin America in 1968 at the Conference of Medellin to create the theory of the ‘preferential option for the poor’. However, the journey was not without its difficulties: Angelelli met with strong opposition in his social battles, contrasts that resulted from the ideological polarisation that was undermining the country.

In that atmosphere of 1968, he was appointed bishop of La Rioja, a pastoral ministry into which he threw himself with his usual spirit. “I have not come to be served but to serve,” Mons. Angelelli said in his homily during his inauguration. “To serve everyone, without distinction”. However, in an area of small farmers, placing oneself at the service of the poor meant taking the side of agrarian reforms and this made him many enemies.

In 1973, a group of owners of large vineyards in the area actually opposed him during Mass, even accusing him of being a communist. It happened that at that time, the then youthful Jorge Mario Bergoglio was in La Rioja for a meeting of Jesuits: “He told us of the stones thrown at this people and this pastor because of their faithfulness to the Gospel”, he said in 2006 in his homily forty years after the death of Angelelli in which, for the first time – as Archbishop of Buenos Aires and President of the Bishops’ Conference of Argentina, he openly spoke of him as a martyr.

The situation deteriorated in the weeks following the coup led by the generals in 1976: on 18th July, the birthday of the Bishop, in the town of Characal Father Murias and Father Longueville were abducted by people claiming to be policemen; their lifeless bodies would be discovered afterwards. A week later it was the turn of Wenceslao Pedernera, a layman involved in rural cooperative projects started by the diocese in the district of Chilecito: he was murdered on his own doorstep, in front of his wife and children. During those days Mons. Angelelli confided to several people: “I am next.”

On 4th August, as he was driving back from Characal, his Fiat 125 left the road and ended up in a ditch. The bishop was found dead while the priest travelling with him – and survived the accident – would later tell how their car had been struck by another vehicle. The authorities, however, told another story: they said the accident was caused by a burst tyre due to high speed.

Only in recent years there have emerged the networks of deceit, the inconsistencies of the testimonies and the documents concerning threats received by Mons. Angelelli. As a result, in 2014, Argentinian justice overturned the former verdict of the eighties, condemning two high levels of the military of the time.

Mons. Angelelli was beatified on 27th April 2019 with three other martyrs, the Franciscan Friar Carlos Murias, the French Fidei Donum Priest Gabriel Longueville and the lay father of a family Wenceslao Pedernera. All four were killed within days of each other during that summer of 1976 while the army and the Argentine paramilitaries brought to power the military junta of General Jorge Rafael Videla.

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