Buenos Aires. Wikimedia Commons

The Obra of Father Pantaleo

A testament to the fruit of the work founded by Fr. Mario Pantaleo–the church of the “Walking Christ,” the medical clinic, the university dormitory, the center for the elderly, and the La Traccia Educational Center–and to the collaboration with AVSI.
Alessandro Banfi

The limousine driver who brought me from the hotel in the center of Buenos Aires gets out of the car after me and insists on entering the little church of Fr. Mario Pantaleo as well. It isn’t just because he wants to stretch his legs after the hour drive. Here, in this place, which seems so remote and peripheral, there’s something worth seeing and touching. It seems that a lot of people in Argentina know about it, more than one would expect. The Obra de Padre Pantaleo, named after the Italian priest who had the gift of healing illnesses by the laying on of hands, is a reality planted in the happy and desperate degradation of the periphery of Buenos Aires called Gonzàles Catàn, one of the zones with the most people and the least infrastructure of the great metropolis. Here, Fr. Mario Pantaleo felt called to a mission. Here, next to the church full of ex-votos–gifts representing gratitude for healings–arises a medical clinic, a university dormitory, nursery schools, schools, professional workshops… As already recounted in Traces (Vol 5, No 1, January, 2003, p.29), after the 1992 death of Fr. Pantaleo, one of the reasons all this grew was because of the encounter with some people in the Movement–in particular, after the defining encounter between Perla Aracelis Gallardo, the heir of the Obra, and Fr. Giussani. After Fr. Mario’s death, Perla, now 80 years old, had searched throughout the world for someone who could help, most importantly, with the educative project. (Mother Teresa of Calcutta had told her, “I can’t. My sisters are illiterate.”) Then she happened into Communion and Liberation. How small the world is, and how great is God, to paraphrase an expression dear to Fr. Giussani.

Fertile land
Argentina is a beautiful and generous land that seems as if it’s just waiting to be sown. Alberto Piatti, AVSI (Association of Volunteers in International Service) President, who I meet for coffee in the heart of Buenos Aires, says, “It’s a splendid country. Just throw some seed on the ground, and you get a plantation.” Fr. Mario’s Obra, in effect, seems like a solid forest in the midst of the unpaved lanes of the neighborhood. Piatti’s comment comes to mind when, having just arrived, I see a long line of people, women and many children, waiting to enter the parish office. We ask Antonella De Giorgi, AVSI Director on site and my guide, “What do they want?” She responds, “They want their children to be baptized.” They come here to the tomb of the Italian priest who healed so many, but also to the heart of a reality of education and hospitality that they appreciate and respect. There are a great number of newborns who imply a vitality projected toward the future, a fecundity of the grace of God, notwithstanding the open sewers and the begging in the streets. They all come to the “Walking Christ,” an image dear to Fr. Mario, for whom he named his church and to whom he dedicated his works.

Even so, the data about this neighborhood on the southern outskirts of Buenos Aires is striking: in this zone, called Villa del Carmen (villa means shantytown, something like the favelas in Brazil), only 30 percent of the roads are paved, 70 percent of the population lives below the poverty level, 50 percent is unemployed, and, of these, a full 24 thousand receive government assistance. It’s the other face of Peronist populism: the poor are maintained in a state of subjection and provide a reservoir of votes for the powerful. Voting booth fodder, or protest march extras.

From the medical clinic to the university dormitory
The buildings in red brick chosen by the priest born in Pistoia, Italy (there’s a bit of Tuscan “rustic art” in the Obra), follow one after the other, housing different works. First, the medical clinic, an essential service here, where there is no national health care and one can wait up to three months for an appointment with a specialist. Then, there’s the university dormitory, one of the most recent initiatives, the fruit of collaboration with the Catholic University of La Plata, enabling many young people of the area who work day jobs to come and study in the evening. The courses prepare students in business management, with the goal of making it possible for them to establish new companies here, so as not to abandon this degraded and needy area. Soon there will also be a degree program in Physical Education. The teachers drive an hour and a half from La Plata, almost 200 miles away, but they are happy about what is happening. An important contribution to achieving all this has come from the Bergamo Companionship of Works, which has “adopted” this initiative. The educative intention is the true working hypothesis of this reality: the university part, most recently born, is the crowning element of all the other schools, from nursery to high schools, that engage 2,600 students, organized into three shifts a day.

Silvia’s library
We stop with Antonella in front of the building that will house the library, made possible through the generosity of the friends and relatives of Silvia Oldrini, a young woman from the Movement in Legnano who died of cancer at the age of 29, just after marrying. Silvia had sent a scarf to Fr. Mario, and though it was not enough to heal her, she said that the contact gave her a new serenity. Her family took her words seriously. Today, it is moving to think that these walls will host thirteen thousand volumes and a number of computers, all because of a young woman who was not healed, but whose death was nonetheless touched by grace. There is a lovely center for the elderly (for which AVSI has launched an “Adopt a Grandparent” campaign) and one for the handicapped, open until the evening, so as not to detract from the family’s responsibility. Through distance support organized by AVSI, about 450 area children receive economic assistance from Italy, and an educative relationship has been established with their families, with home visits by volunteers and meetings in the offices at the Obra. Four years ago, the La Traccia Educative Center opened, offering space for play and study for about 400 children.

The miracle of work
Next, we have a wonderful tour of the professional workshops, the beating heart of the educative effort with local youth, those most exposed to the risk of social parasitism, drugs, and unemployment fostered by political power. After a 4:00 pm snack for everyone (obviously, hunger is a reality, and must be faced in order to avoid distraction later), it is time for study, and then work. Student cooks, barmen, bakers, woodworkers, agrarian technicians, and telemarketers (120 students in all), in pleasant and technologically equipped settings, meet master artisans full of passion and with something to say. Forty percent of these young people find work because of these courses, a true miracle in this social desert called the Villa.