Remembering martyred YCS chaplain, Carlos Mugica

Today, on the 50th anniversary of his death on 11 May 1974, we remember the Argentinian priest and JEC/YCS chaplain, Fr Carlos Mugica.

By all accounts, he was an incredibly dynamic priest. Born on 7 October 1930 into an upper class family, he began law studies in 1949. A year later he travelled to Rome for the Holy Year, which led him to join the seminary in 1951.

From 1954, while still a seminarian, he began to work with poor families in the parish of Santa Rosa de Lima in Buenos Aires. Here he worked with Fr Juan José Iriarte, later the bishop of Reconquista and archbishop of Resistencia, a promoter of Catholic Action, Council Father at Vatican II and signatory of the Pact of the Catacombs.

Later Mugica would write of this experience with Fr Iriarte:

Father Iriarte visited the people of the parish; he didn’t wait for them, he went looking for them. It wasn’t just a matter of going with the word of God; it was a matter of gathering the word of the people. We tried to talk to the people, to understand. It was a working class neighbourhood and humble people always have problems; of course, we had to evangelise, to reassure everyone that they were all children of God, but apart from that, we had to try to reach everything else. At the end of 1954 and throughout the year 55, we went with Father Iriarte to visit the people in their homes. Once a week, we would go to a tenement house on Catamarca Street and talk to the people. I would prepare some boys who would later take their first communion; on Sundays we would play football.

Until this point, he had been an opponent of Juan Peron and his Peronist government but all this changed following the coup d’état of 1955:

One night I went to the tenement as usual. I had to cross a half-dark alley and suddenly, under the very dim light of the only light bulb, I saw written in chalk and in very large letters: ‘Without Perón, there is no Homeland and there is no God. Down with the crows’. The people in the tenement knew me well, I had become quite intimate with them during all that time (I continued to go there afterwards, almost all of ‘56). However, for me what I saw written was a blow: that night was the other turning point in my life. In the house I found people crushed, with great sadness. I was a member of the Church and they attributed part of the responsibility for Perón’s fall to the Church. I felt quite uncomfortable, although they didn’t say anything to me. When I went out into the street I breathed in the sadness in the neighbourhood. The humble people were mourning Perón’s fall. And if the humble people were in mourning, then I was out of place: I was on the opposite side of the street.12

I was anti-Peronist until I was 26, and my rapprochement with Peronism coincided with my Christianisation. That is to say, to the extent that I discovered in the Gospel, through theology, that the Church belongs to everyone but above all to the poor, as John XXIII said, and that Christ evangelises everyone without distinction of persons, but with distinction of groups and prefers those of his own condition, the poor, I began to look at things from another point of view.

Commitment to the poor

Over the following years, his identification with the poor would continue to develop. On 20 December 1959, he was finally ordained a priest following which he went for a year of pastoral work with Iriarte, who had since become the bishop of Reconquista.

At around this time, he also became chaplain to the JEC (Young Catholic Students or YCS) group at the National College of Buenos Aires, which was affiliated to the University of Buenos Aires. The JEC in Buenos Aires grew considerably during this period, recruiting a number of very strong leaders.

In 1966, the example of the Colombian priest, Camilo Torres Restrepo, who had joined the armed struggle, began to exert a strong influence in Argentina. As a result, several of the JEC leaders who had worked with Mugica took up arms, becoming founders of the armed revolutionary group, the Montoneros.

Vatican II also began to exercise its influence within the Argentinia Church. Mugica himself joined the movement of “Curas villeros” – “Village priests” launched under the inspiration of Bishop Jeronimo Podesta, who had founded the JOC in the La Plata Diocese, and worked closely with the jocist chaplains’ magazine, Notas de Pastoral Jocista.

In 1967, Mugica joined the Movement of Third World Priests, a group of progressive priests linked to the emergence of liberation theology in Latin America.

During 1967, he travelled to Bolivia hoping to take possession of the body of Che Guevara in order to give him a Christian burial, but he failed in this mission. From there he travelled to France, where, along with another 270 priests, he signed the Manifesto of Third World Bishops initiated by Brazilian Bishop Helder Camara and dated 15 August 1967.

Over the following years, the situation in Argentina became increasingly conflictual. After Montonero leaders Gustavo Ramus and Fernando Abal Medina were killed in a confrontation with the police, Mugica presided over their funeral, delivering the following homily:

Gustavo and Fernando Luis, who chose the hardest and most difficult path for the cause of human dignity. We cannot continue with indefinition and fear, without committing ourselves. I remember when Carlos Gustavo and I took a trip to the north of the country and there I saw him cry inconsolably when he saw the misery and sad fate of the axemen. He was faithful to Christ, he had a concrete and real love for those who suffer; He committed himself to the cause of justice, which is that of God, because he understood that Jesus Christ shows us the path of service. He is an example for the youth, because we have to fight to achieve a just society and overcome the mechanism that wants to turn us into automatons. May this holocaust serve as an example for us.

Conflict with the Church hierarchy

As a result of this, Mugica was arrested for inciting violence and also suspended by the diocese for a month, even though he did not support the armed struggle. This conflict with the Argentinian Church hierarchy continued. It is notable that during this time, he was supported by the jocist priests, Lucio Gera and Rafael Tello.

Eventually, Cardinal Juan Carlos Aramburu of Buenos Aires began to pressure him to leave the priesthood. However, Mugica resisted, saying:

Nothing and no one will prevent me from serving Jesus Christ and his Church, fighting alongside the poor for their liberation. If the Lord grants me the privilege, which I do not deserve, of losing my life in this undertaking, I am at his disposal.

In subsequent years, he took an increasingly strong position against the armed struggle, writing:

[…] I believe that the guerrilla makes complete sense during the military dictatorship and no sense during the constitutional government. They do not have to act as armed organisations. They do not have to be dissolved, for now.

And for me many of the guerrillas are not from the people either, I warn you: they are intellectual petty bourgeois who learn the revolution in a book and not in reality, and they play with the people! They play with the people! They took away the tremendous joy of experiencing Perón as president two days after being elected! And they created an unforgivable climate of fear for the people […] a tremendous mistake by the Montonera bureaucracy, the new bureaucracy […]

Violence is one thing when all possible instances of action have been exhausted, and violence is another thing when there is a constitutional government elected by the people. At this moment the exercise of violence is an exercise of anti-people action. It’s anti-people… So I have to ask myself: are we going to hit? And if we hit, do we prevent the murders from progressing? But it gives the impression that for each reaction of the JP it becomes much more accentuated… So, sometimes, out of revolutionary purism, what we do is guarantee the execution of four more comrades.

Nonviolence

While giving priority to nonviolence, he did not reject the legitimacy o f armed struggle outright in certain circumstances. However, in line with Helder Camara, he believed that at that time the only thing that violence would achieve would be “the exacerbation of violence against the people.”

He criticised the decision of the Montoneros not to disarm after the election of the democratic government of President Héctor Cámpora in 1973. He wrote:

As the Bible says, we must lay down our weapons to take up the plows… Events like yesterday, at a time when Argentina is exposing its Justicialist vision in Algiers and General Carcagno is talking to us about the liberating and not oppressive army, are a provocation […] It is very easy to shout “Montoneros!”, or to go out in demonstration. But it is not easy to kill the selfishness that we have inside.

Nevertheless, he gave the sermon at a mass commemorating the third anniversary of the death of Montonero leaders Fernando Abal Medina and Carlos Gustavo Ramus.

Two months later, in an interview, he defended socialism as a model of government that was closer to Christian ideals. But he also criticised Marxism and class struggle as a form of “cultural colonialism” in Argentina.

He urged peace and support for Isabel Peron’s new government.

However, by this time, he had developed many enemies over the course of these conflictual years.

Martyrdom

On 11 May, 1974, after 8pm, he was ambushed as he was about to get into his car outside the San Francisco Solano church on 4771 Zelada Street in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Villa Luro, where he had just celebrated mass.

He and his friend, Ricardo Capelli were shot with an automatic weapon by a policeman, Eduardo Almirón, who had been sitting at the back of the church during mass and who was a member of the anti-communist “Triple A” group. Almirón. While Capelli survived, Carlos Mugica, who was struck by five bullets, succumbed to his wounds later that night.

The government blamed the Montoneros, who denied involvement. However, no judicial investigation took place until 2007. Finally, on 12 July, 2012, Judge Norberto Oyarbide issued a statement finding that “Rodolfo Eduardo Almirón was the immediate author of the homicide of Carlos Francisco Sergio Mugica, within the framework of the criminal actions of the Triple A.”

On 9 October, 1999, Carlos Mugica’s body moved from the Recoleta cemetery to the Cristo Obrero parish of Villa 31 in Retiro, where he had carried out his greatest activity as a “village priest.”

This was done at the suggestion of the Team of Village Priests of the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires, and was led by the then Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis.

Prayer

Among the prayers, Fr Mugica was the following one, which is still used by the Village Priests:

Lord, forgive me for having become accustomed
to seeing boys who look like they are eight years old and are thirteen.
Lord, forgive me for getting used
to splashing in the mud. I can leave, they can’t.
Lord, forgive me for having learned to endure the smell of sewage,
from which I may not suffer, but they do not.
Lord, forgive me for turning on the light and forgetting that they can’t do it.
Sir, I can go on hunger strike and they cannot,
because no one can go on strike with their own hunger.
Lord, forgive me for telling you ‘man does not live by bread alone’
and not fighting with everything to rescue his bread.
Lord, I want to love them for them and not for me.
Lord, I want to die for them, help me live for them.
Lord, I want to be with them at the hour of light. 

Read more

Carlos Mugica (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

Carlos Mugica (Wikipedia Spanish)

Carlos Mugica (Wikipedia English)

Jorge Luis Bernetti, La buena madera del cruz

Jorge Luis Bernetti, The good wood of the cross

Jorge Luis Bernetti, Le bon bois de la croix

Carlos Mugica, the martyr of the villas miserias (La Stampa)


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