News 07 Mar 2024

Argentinian Patagonia: Mission country

The Church in Patagonia faces unique challenges, marked by vast distances, great diversity, and a lack of resources. One of the bishops overseeing the development of the Church in this expansive territory of Argentina is Mgr. Roberto Álvarez, who recently sat down with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) to share his dreams and difficulties.

Bishop Roberto Álvarez has carried a double responsibility since October 2023, when he was appointed head of the newly created Diocese of Rawson and also became the Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Comodoro Rivadavia, both located in Argentinian Patagonia. On February 17, he is set to be installed as the Bishop of Rawson, a diocese just beginning to face its unique challenges. "The Patagonian Church is special, very different from the rest of Argentina. For instance, we are a land of evangelization, a mission country. This region lacks deep Christian roots; in that sense, we resemble Uruguay," Bishop Álvarez explains, noting that the province of Chubut, where Rawson is situated, has a history characterized by strong migration.

"This area was once inhabited by Mapuches-Tehuelches, but in the 19th century, it was settled by Welsh immigrants. Nowadays, we have people coming from Bolivia and Paraguay, creating a unique cultural and religious diversity compared to the rest of Argentina. There is also a significant Protestant presence, uncommon in other parts of the country," he elaborates.

One diocese, one hundred thousand square kilometers
Perhaps the most significant challenge is the vast distance between communities. The new diocese spans around 100,000 square kilometers, a larger area than Portugal or Austria. The reality the bishop describes often demands extreme sacrifices. "There are no trains here, and flights are scarce, so we rely on cars to get around. In some rural areas, a 400 km round trip is necessary to celebrate Mass."

Attending the Patagonia-wide pastoral meeting requires significant effort, with participants traveling from places like Usuahia having to drive 1,500 to 2,000 kilometers. "Yet they do it with great joy because they understand the importance of these gatherings for the future of evangelization. Sometimes, we can rely more on them here in Patagonia than in other places I've worked, where distances were much shorter," the bishop remarks. He also covers hundreds of kilometers fulfilling his responsibilities, such as driving 807 kilometers at the end of January to attend the binational peace and fraternity meeting between Chile and Argentina, located at the border crossing in the southwest of Chubut province.

Given this unique context, Bishop Álvarez emphasizes the importance of clergy formation. Of the 12 priests in the Diocese of Rawson, only six are Argentinian, and merely three are from Patagonia. "I have only a handful of priests, which means that laypeople are truly called to fulfill their baptismal mission; we rely on them greatly. Due to the vast distances, we need to care for our priests, provide them with support. This year, we held the first meeting for young clergy, and it was a success."

Financial challenges
Another challenge Bishop Álvarez faces is the lack of resources, a situation that has worsened over the past eight to ten years. "When you have nothing, personal concerns fade away. My only worry is the economic support for my pastoral agents in the diocese," he explains. "Look, I have just finished ironing my clothes. I don't have my own house; I do everything myself. I rely on the generosity of my priests, who provide me with a bed and meals. There is always a priest ready to offer a place to rest," the bishop details. "Yet, despite the economic and geographical challenges, I am very content," he adds, with an infectious joy.

The combination of obstacles, vast distances, and limited resources makes sustaining the new diocese a daunting task. For priests, even a simple trip can entail considerable costs, sometimes equivalent to a full month's income for the parish. "This is why the support provided for training courses and Mass stipends is crucial. Without the assistance of ACN, covering all the fuel costs for our pastoral work would be impossible," Bishop Álvarez acknowledges.

ACN also aids in supporting the Sisters of Saint John the Baptist, a Mexican religious community performing extraordinary work within a 250 square kilometer radius, encompassing remote communities of the new diocese such as Las Plumas, Dique Ameghino, or Escorial. In these areas, where roads are little more than rocks and sand, the sisters conduct pastoral and social work with the poorest families, bringing the comfort of God alongside provisions of food and medicine. "They live with great austerity, enduring temperatures as low as 10 degrees below zero. They are authorized to perform baptisms and weddings because the nearest priest is hours away. The support they receive from ACN is indispensable; without it, they would struggle to cover their expenses," Bishop Álvarez expresses, with gratitude.

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