Cardinal Luis Héctor Villalba; Tucumán, Argentina

When Pope Francis first started out as an auxiliary bishop in Buenos Aires in 1992, he was assigned as vicar to the Flores district, which was in fact the part of town in which he had grown up. And he would later relate that the work there was easy because he just had to keep doing what the previous auxiliary had done.

That previous auxiliary was then-Bishop Luis Héctor Villalba, 80, who was made a Cardinal last Saturday. In his many years of service to the church, most especially 12 years spent as archbishop of Tucumán in the northeast of Argentina, Cardinal Villalba was a tireless advocate for the poor and a critic of government corruption.

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In fact, each year on July 9th, the Republic of Argentina’s Independence Day, it is the tradition that the President travels to Tucumán—where independence was declared—for a day of celebrations. And while archbishop Cardinal Villalba regularly took advantage of that opportunity to give fearless homilies at the traditional Te Deum service where the president would be present, challenging government positions on topics like poverty, inequality, gay marriage or education, or attacking it for its selfishness and corruption. “The country demands honesty and transparency,” he said in one such homily. “The meek do no evil.”

In another he decried “the selfishness of men, rulers or people who put  ahead their own good or a group,” as a result of which “the unity of the nation is bankrupt.”

In addition to being archbishop, Cardinal Villalba served two terms as Vice President of the Argentinian Bishops’ Conference, at the same time that then-Cardinal Bergoglio was its president. The two were a good team; Villalba was a close confidant and an apt troubleshooter. So, for instance, when the well-liked bishop of Santiago del Estero, who had fought for the poor and challenged government corruption, was caught on tape having sex with a young man and had to resign, it was Villalba who was sent in to be the acting administrator.

The priests of the diocese, furious and sad about their bishop’s resignation, had a press conference in which they addressed their love for their bishop and their sense that he was set up by some of his political opponents. Afterwards, Villalba praised the bishop—“He walked every inch of the diocese, [was] very close to the people, defending human rights, open to dialogue and working for the common good.” He promised to continue the bishop’s work.

Asked recently about his thoughts on the reform of the Curia, Cardinal Villalba reflected that having Curial officials stay in their jobs for many years “is always a risk....We always run the risk of turning into administrators if we are too many years in a job.”

About the coming Synod he noted that “There are many things that are debatable, there are and there always will be in the church....What will not change is the sacramentality of marriage, the indissolubility of marriage.” He feels sure that “The Pope will not touch doctrine.”

Located in the northeast of Argentina, the region of Tucumán is the smallest of the Argentinian provinces, but the most densely populated. Nicknamed “the Garden of the Republic” for its agriculture, Tucumán has a growing economy. But per capita earnings are 40 percent below the national average. (And still that’s better than its neighboring northern provinces.)

Hector Tito Garabel, a journalist who knows the cardinal well, told Salt & Light last week that Villalba has always been “a man of moderation, acting as a bridge, and finding agreement.” Summarizing what makes him special, Garabel explained, “Once he became a bishop, he never stopped being a priest.”

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