Monday, June 17, 2024

How Pope Francis triggered a personnel chaos in his home church

In the beginning, there were only winners. When Pope Francis appointed his close confidant Victor Fernandez as the supreme guardian of the faith in the Vatican on 1 July 2023, there was great joy. 

Not only in Rome, but also in the Argentinian archdiocese of La Plata, which Fernandez had headed since 2018. However, the reasons were different. 

Francis was delighted that he had managed to win over his compatriot and long-time ghostwriter for the important position at the head of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. Fernandez himself was delighted with his promotion from archbishop to curia cardinal. 

In La Plata, however, the joy of the opportunity for a new beginning prevailed. It is no secret that both the laity and priests of the conservative metropolis were unfamiliar with their reform-minded archbishop. Many hoped that a successor with a bit more stable odour would be a better fit than someone who writes risqué books about kissing and orgasms.

In fact, the Pope found an initially convincing solution: he appointed a certain Gabriel Mestre to Argentina's third most important episcopal see in the capital of the province of Buenos Aires. 

The 55-year-old took up his post there in mid-September. Although he - like Francis and Fernandez - is regarded as a church policy reformer, the new archbishop knew how to deal with the Catholics in La Plata straight away. 

Co-operation with the clergy also worked smoothly from the outset. The problems began elsewhere: in the smaller diocese of Mar del Plata, which Mestre had successfully led for six years. 

There, too, a suitable successor had to be found. 

It is certain that the outgoing bishop would have loved to see his vicar general Luis Alboniga as the new bishop. But nothing came of it. 

Francis' choice fell on Jose Maria Balina, until then auxiliary bishop in the archdiocese of Buenos Aires.

Sudden withdrawal

From then on, things got strange. The newly appointed bishop of Mar del Plata did not take up his post, but backed out in December. 

When he received an "avalanche of congratulations" after his appointment, he realised that he was not up to the task, the clergyman surprisingly announced. He suffers from a detached retina and has had to undergo several operations. 

He also had personal and family problems. He said in a personal statement that he was sorry to have to disappoint the expectations of so many people. 

According to local media reports, the vacant diocese wanted to use the opportunity to help the popular vicar general Alboniga to become bishop after all. An influential lobby group centred around the former local bishop Mestre portrayed the interim leader as a charismatic fisher of men and an excellent preacher who would fill the pews. 

But Francis once again appointed another candidate: this time Gustavo Larrazabal, until then auxiliary bishop in San Juan de Cuyo. 

The Alboniga advocates felt offended once again.

This led to an open power struggle in the media, which became increasingly ugly. Concerns about Larrazábal's suitability were deliberately spread via the daily newspaper "La Capital". 

In one article, he was accused of harassment and abuse of office in previous years. The Vatican came to the defence of the accused, but it didn't help. 

Larrazabal's reputation was so tarnished that he also resigned before taking office "after a very conscientious process of discernment and prayer".

Francis reacted angrily and went on the counter-attack. 

In January, he installed his own confidant as interim head in Mar del Plata and sent Alboniga into the desert - to the diocese of Jujuy, around 2,000 kilometres away. He also ordered an investigation to be opened into the role played by the vicar general in recent months. 

Is the intrigue against Larrazabal possibly directly attributable to him? 

The conflict then spiralled completely out of control. In the middle of church services in Mar del Plata, there were sensational protests in favour of Alboniga's return - a first in the history of the diocese. 

The dispute reached its temporary climax at the end of May. Gabriel Mestre, the popular new Archbishop of La Plata, was summoned to Rome to give an account of the situation in his former diocese.

Staff chaos causes outrage

During the interview, he felt the Pope's full displeasure. 

According to reports, Francis accused him of having acted as a string-puller in the background. 

A few days later, Mestre let his followers know in writing: "After confronting some different views on what has happened in the diocese of Mar del Plata since November 2023 until today, Pope Francis has asked me to resign from the office of Archbishop of La Plata." 

Out of obedience to the Holy Father, he signed his resignation immediately. 

"It pains me to leave," said Mestre. He had been "very happy" in his few months in La Plata. In emotional words of farewell, he added: "Thank you for making me feel at home with you!"

The resulting personnel chaos is causing incomprehension and outrage in Argentina. More and more prominent voices are speaking out in favour of Mestre. 

Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel sent a special letter to the Pope in which he wrote: "In times of uncertainty, in the midst of light and shadow, Gabriel is a light that we need to reach the minds and hearts of our Church and the people." 

Hector Aguer, Archbishop of La Plata, even took a verbal swipe at Francis and Cardinal Fernandez in the newspaper "La Prensa". He indirectly described the latter as incompetent and the Pope's decisions as "strange". 

In just over eight months in office, Mestre had shown that he was capable of doing what Fernandez had been unable to do. The 81-year-old Aguer emphasised: "I know what I'm talking about: I was Archbishop of La Plata for two decades."

In the end, only losers emerge from the convoluted scenario. 

After three surprising resignations of bishops and a lot of bad blood, the Pope has to put up with criticism of his personnel policy. 

Fernandez, who is already under fire for a controversial document on the blessing of homosexuals, has to watch as his competence is publicly called into question. 

And with Mestre, of all people, an archbishop who knew how to rally conservatives and reformers alike behind him was dismissed. 

A skill that is needed more than ever in the Catholic Church these days.