In the framework of last month's Rimini Meeting for Friendship between Peoples, Father José María “Pepe” Di Paola, a parish priest of Villa 21 in Buenos Aires talked with ZENIT. 

He talked about the Pope when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires and the friendship that grew between them. About Bergoglio’s desire that work be done in the marginal areas, on the front lines. About the threats he himself received from drug traffickers. 

ZENIT: How was your friendship with Pope Francis born?

Father Di Paola: I am a diocesan priest, Bergoglio is a Jesuit. He arrived in the 90s. He met me because I worked with children and young people, also seeking this option for the poor. He brought me closer to the villa [i.e. slum], to the hidden city, and then he appointed me parish priest of Villa 21. And I was able to fulfill my priesthood because the work with young people and with the poor converged there. It’s not that he said go and I’ll support you, because he involves himself in the work in the villa. He would arrive, unexpectedly, to drink mate. Between ’97 and 2001, the only important person who visited the villas [slums] was Bergoglio. Until that moment, there were politicians who would send representatives, but he was the only important one who came. After 2001, a new situation began, with greater interest on the part of the social and political world. 

ZENIT: How did Bergoglio follow your work?

Father Di Paola: He listened to our proposals. “If you see it, begin,” he would say, as when we founded the Addicts’ Recovery Center. When he saw we were determined for something worthwhile, and that stemmed from our convictions, he supported us immediately. And he left us alone. He had great confidence in us. 

ZENIT: Drugs in the villas: Can it be said that the drug traffickers sell to the rich?

Father Di Paola: Drug trafficking in Latin America has plans designed for the upper, middle and lower class. For the poor they offer the extension of cocaine, which they call “el paco” [sniper].

ZENIT: You have indicated today that the results you have obtained make those who consider religion the opium of the people think again.

Father Di Paola: Yes, for instance the fight for schools, for the improvement of people’s lives, many who arrived without anything and who learned a trade and began to work. It all happens on the basis of spirituality and not of a State that says “you must do this.” 

ZENIT: Why do the inhabitants stay in the villa?

Father Di Paola: Sometimes they stay there because it’s the neighborhood where they were born. They have affection for it although they would like things to be different. Individual and group improvement happens in the villa’s community life when it has faith as the engine, not even the economic factor is sufficient. More than that, all plans can function for a time but afterwards … What makes them persevere is when there is a Church that really gives them a content, an environment where these people can get together, who come from other countries and provinces. They come across a Church that gathers them as family and that gives them the possibility to make their own history. 

ZENIT: How are things now? 

Father Di Paola: We are out of the emergency. There are programs that are good, but we are still very far from surmounting . I’m not an economist and I don’t know if it can be done. Meanwhile I think we cannot measure the Argentine realities without understanding what is happening in the Southern Cone, because if many people come to Argentina it’s because there is public health, education, etc.

ZENIT: Is there some particular event that made an impression on you when you were with Archbishop Bergoglio? 

Father Di Paola: When I said to him, “Monsignor, they threatened me with death,” we were chatting as you and I are now doing. He was intent; he put his hand on his head, and said: “The only thing I’m going to ask God is that if someone has to die, that I be the one and not you all, because you must continue in the villas doing what you do.” And he said that to me. Not in front of people to look good. They are really things one can never forget. 

ZENIT: And then, what happened?

Father Di Paola: I stayed for another year and a half. He appointed me vicar of the villas and then I realized that the threats were endangering the lives of those who accompany me, my collaborators. So I said to him, Monsignor, I must leave because I’m afraid something will happen, not with me, given that they all know me, but who can defend a child of the villas in face of these guys who have no scruples at all?

ZENIT: Was the problem solved? 

Father Di Paola: It’s difficult to say, but at least the pressure was lessened. And now I’ve returned to work in this charism. 

ZENIT: At the Meeting, there were videos showing the religious celebrations in the villas with strong popular devotion typical of the Andean world. 

Father Di Paola: The villas of the Federal Capital have large components from neighboring countries, be they Paraguayans, Bolivians or Peruvians. Instead, in the San Martin villa where I am now, there are more components of northern Argentina. 

ZENIT: How do the people of the villas celebrate their feasts?

Father Di Paola: In the villas of the Capital there are no civic feasts; the feast of the people is the religious feast. On Dec. 8, for instance, everything stops to celebrate. It’s a walk that lasts the whole day in the whole neighborhood and people come out to celebrate, at least in the villas of the Capital. Now I’m beginning to know the San Martin villas, but I think the reality there is different. 

ZENIT: And how did Bergoglio get around in the villa?

Father Di Paola: The Pope got around with absolute freedom in the villa. If some said, “We are going to meet you at the bus," at most we would suggest it, otherwise he’d get cross. I remember that once I waited for him in a sector of the neighborhood called Zavaleta. We were putting up an improvised stage and I was surprised, thinking that Bergoglio hadn’t arrived yet. “I arrived a while ago,” he said. “I saw that you were working and as they asked me to bless their homes, I went.” And the people only realized he was the bishop when Bergoglio put on the mitre. They thought he was an older priest who had come to accompany the Mass. All these things went on for years, so that when he was elected Pope the people said : “This is the Pope of the villas.” [el Papa villero]

When I went to Plaza de Mayo on the eve of the Mass for the beginning of the pontificate, many people brought photos of the moment Bergoglio was Confirming them, baptizing them, etc. It was a joy, and it was celebrated as if it were a World Cup. People came out to celebrate; they played music, there was a great celebration in Villa 21, because they feel he is someone of the area. 

ZENIT: How did he treat them from the spiritual point of view? 

Father Di Paola: He respected us greatly, and just asked questions. I talked a lot with him because I was the coordinator of the group. Many times I was beside him, consulting him, expressing my anxieties, and he would make suggestions. 

ZENIT: Did he organize retreats, for example?

Father Di Paola: No, he expected us to do that. In fact, we had retreats; we invited him to some meetings. We were a large group of people. He wasn’t a type who would impose something. He waited for the initiative to come from us.

[Translation by ZENIT]