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Drive around Argentina and you can’t help noticing roadside shrines honouring Gauchito Gil – a sort of Robin Hood gaucho hero – and La Difunta Correa, a protective patron saint adored by lorry drivers, and sometimes referred to as Our Lady of the Broken Fanbelt.
The Argentine tourist industry is already tapping in to the hard-currency potential of the latest shrine-candidate, Pope Francisco I, with local firms trying to link hotel openings to the pope’s homeland. But a pope tour might, in fact, open up a few new neighbourhoods and regions.
His birthplace, Flores, is at the end of the Línea A underground railway. Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born here – on calle Membrillar (it’s house no 531, by the way, for the true pilgrims) – in 1936, when the area was favoured by the middle classes for its fresh breezes wafting in from the pampas. Like many residents he grew up supporting the local football team, San Lorenzo de Almagro, whose nickname is The Saints. Their rivals, Independiente, are known as Los Diablos: The Devils. The stadium, El Nuevo Gasómetro, is just round the corner from the priest’s house.
The Linea A is currently being extended and the next new station – due to open any time now – will be named San José de Flores, after the local church – though there’s no doubt already a passionate lobby to call it Pope Francisco I.
The future pope studied at the Inmaculada Concepción seminary in Villa Devoto (Village of Devotion), a barrio on the western edges of Buenos Aires. Though it’s most familiar to locals for its large prison, it’s a pleasantly leafy residential area and home to one of the city’s listed cafes, the Café de García (Sanabria 3302) – just the place to while away an hour over a cortado and a lively theological text.
As a Jesuit novice, Jorge Mario Bergoglio spent time in Santiago de Chile and out in the pampas of Buenos Aires and Santa Fe (Holy Faith) provinces – where he taught literature, psychology and philosophy. After a spell overseas he became the head of the Argentine Jesuits in the city of Córdoba. The so-called Jesuit Block of university, church and residential buildings in the city and the former Jesuit-managed estancias in the province of Córdoba are together designated as a single Unesco World Heritage site, but still don’t attract the visitor numbers of the rather plain-looking Metropolitan Cathedral of Buenos Aires, which was Bergoglio’s workplace – from 1998 – as Archbishop of Buenos Aires. There has been a church at this spot since Buenos Aires was founded in 1580, but the current cathedral dates from the 18th century, though the façade is a harsh-looking 19th-century Neoclassical affair (below). The national “Liberator”, José de San Martîn, is buried there.
If you really want to get under the skin of the pope’s homeland, however, you must go to the San Cayetano church in Liniers, on the fringes of Buenos Aires. San Cayetano, the patron saint of “bread and work” is the Saint Francis of Argentina, and his big day – August 7 – attracts the faithful in their tens of thousands. As Cardinal, Bergoglio asked the much-loved saint to help the poor and make the “ñoquis” – work-shy civil servants – get on and do the jobs they are paid to do.
Tourism, in Argentina, still takes the shape of pilgrimages for the country’s working classes. For today’s inauguration , Roman Catholics flocked to Liniers to thank San Cayetano, while out in the far-flung provinces they were placing new bottles of beer on the roadside shrines to celebrate their most important future saint – after Maradona, that is.