by Fr. Peter Short
On October 16, 2016 Pope Francis canonized a humble priest, almost completely unknown outside of Argentina, but who was referred to as the “Argentine Cure of Ars” by St. John Paul II. Jose Gabriel del Rosario Brochero – or Cura Brochero as he is commonly referred to – was born on March 16, 1840 in the small town of Villa Santa Rosa in the Province of Cordoba, Argentina about 60 miles northeast of the city of Cordoba. He was baptized the next day in the parish church of Santa Rosa. During the last nine years of my time ministering in Argentina, I happened to be assigned to the parish of that town. Since by that time I had heard of and admired Fr. Brochero for many years, it was a privilege for which I will always be grateful.
Jose Gabriel Brochero lived 16 years in that small frontier town as a child and an adolescent until the day he left for the Mayor Seminary to begin his studies as a priest. He was the fourth of ten children. His childhood then was lived on the open flat plains and rustic brush country of the eastern part of the province of Cordoba, whereas his ministry took him for many years up into the mountainous country of the “wild west” of that same Province.
As pastor of the town, I was struck by a part of the history of the parish (founded in 1800) in which Fr. Brochero lived as a young boy: between the ages of 9 and 11, his town was without a priest. So although he was very impressed by some of the priests that were pastors during his youth, it may have been the absence of priests (because of their shortage at the time) that had the greatest impact upon the vocation of the young Brochero. Perhaps this explains why one of the greatest characteristics of his priesthood was his zeal for souls: he did not want Satan to have room to take any one in his care and would go to great lengths to give the sacraments to those in need, saying famously: “I’ll be darned if the devil is going to rob a soul from me”. On one occasion, in order to reach a dying man with the sacrament of the sick he crossed a raging swollen river hanging on to his mule’s tail as the animal crossed the water.
Unlike the Cure of Ars, Brochero did not have difficulty in his studies and had reached advanced degrees in philosophy as well as theology by the time he was assigned to his first parish as pastor. After his ordination to the priesthood in 1866 at the age of 26, he spent time in the Mayor Seminary as a prefect of studies. That same year of his ordination a cholera epidemic broke out in the city of Cordoba and some 4000 people would die. Brochero, as a young priest with heroic courage and dedication, moved from one to another of the sick offering, them the anointing and hearing their confession.
In November of 1869 Fr. Brochero was assigned to the vast parish located on the west side of the Cordoba Mountains. It covered 2700 square miles, which is larger than the state of Delaware. This region was the “wild west” of the Province, isolated by the chain of mountains and the lack of roads. It was an area known as a hideout for outlaws and home to many simple rustic people who had little access to the more civilized and educated city of Cordoba. Between the bitter cold in the winter and sultry heat mixed with severe thunder storms in the summer, the people lived austere lives with a few livestock – especially goats – from which they would receive their meat and milk.
Brochero arrived at his new parish by mule, crossing the treacherous 80 miles over the high sierra mountains from the city of Cordoba in a few days. He lost no time in visiting his immense parish, of about ten thousand people at the time, town by town, evaluating the situation. His people had no access to education, no roads to unite them to the rest of the Province, churches in need of repair or rebuilding and in general an enormous need for evangelization.
Fr. Brochero worked tirelessly for almost 36 years in his parish. His first objective was to help in the conversion and renewal in the faith of his people, which he did primarily in inviting them in groups to make the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola for 8 days, at first in the city of Cordoba and later in the retreat house which he had built in the center of his immense parish. His power of persuasion and humble, gracious character enabled him to convince and lead hundreds of men and women – each year, one time for men and another for women – on their “pilgrimage” across the mountains to the old Jesuit house in the city of Cordoba where he would assist the Jesuits assigned to preach the Exercises. The newspapers of the time wrote extensive articles on the occasion reporting on the surprise of those who lived in the city to see hundreds of men on horseback riding in to spend a week in prayer. Brochero not only had to convince his parishioners to do the retreat but at times had to seek food or funding to help support the family that remained behind while their father or mother went on the retreat which in all meant a couple of weeks away from home. When in 1877 he inaugurated a retreat house in the center of his parish, the numbers of his retreats for men or women grew to extraordinary proportions: at times there were 800 men doing the retreat at once. Pope Francis mentioned recently in an interview that while he, the pope lived in Cordoba (in the same Jesuit house where Brochero brought his faithful for retreat), Pope Francis found that the penitents who came to his confessional who had the best formation were always from Brochero’s old parish. It is a testament to his work which to this day shows in the faith of those parishioners.
Although a well-educated priest, Brochero used the rustic language of the people to help them understand the faith. This would cost him some misunderstanding especially for those unfamiliar with the terms commonly used among the gauchos of that area. He was accused of being too coarse and unpriestly by some who did not understand the people’s way of expressing themselves nor Brochero’s approach. For example, he once described God’s grace as “like a goat on top of a bread oven (which is shaped like an igloo) that when he evacuates the crap flows in all directions”. It might have scandalized a few outsiders, but his people understood him perfectly.
Fr. Brochero did not concern himself only with the spiritual needs of his people. Shortly after building his retreat house, he built a large school for girls and was able to obtain a community of religious sisters to staff it. This was one of the first schools for girls in Argentina. He also projected and worked on an aqueduct for water and irrigation in some of the towns, rebuilt many of the churches in his parish, marked and worked side by side with his people to build roads connecting his parish to the province and projected and sought the help of politicians for years to connect the area with the railroad. Although he was promised by the government that the railroad would be built, and a law was passed authorizing it, to this day it never was realized.
In 1898, exhausted by his labors, he resigned his parish and was named canon of the cathedral in Cordoba by the bishop. He did not rest for long and did not think the honorific title or the purple cape of the canons a good fit for him. In his classically down to earth expression he explained that “this mule (himself) is not made for that corral (the canon’s choir)”. The bishop reassigned him to his parish on the west of the mountains in 1902 where he continued to work for another six years.
Brochero loved his people, especially the poor and the sick. He often went to have mate (a tea which is shared among those drinking it in a common straw) with a leper who lived in his parish. He eventually contracted the disease himself. Unable to continue with his duties as pastor because of his illness which was rapidly causing blindness, he resigned his parish to the bishop for the last time in 1908 and he returned to his home town of Villa Santa Rosa, where he lived four years in the family house with his sister. Although in poor health and retired, he continued to preach retreats in the country and visit prisons. In 1912, he returned to his beloved parish to live with another sister a couple of blocks from the main parish church, retreat house and school which he built.
Although Brochero remained loved by his people – in fact by this time he was a legend for all of Argentina who knew of his great work – he spent his last few years almost completely alone since the people feared the leprosy he suffered. So it was that on a hot summer evening in January, a priest friend who happened to be passing by stopped in to see him and found him alone, blind, his face partially eaten away by the leprosy and dying. He administered the sacrament of the sick and accompanied him during his last hours. Fr. Brochero died January 26, 1914 at the age of 73.
Even in his last years, ravished by his illness and bedridden, Brochero gave what would be one of his last great lessons in the Christian life. In a letter he wrote to a friend he said: “You will recall that I used to say that I would always be energetic like a wild horse that dies galloping…. You now see in what state that wild horse finds himself. It is a great grace that Our Lord God has given me in removing all my active life and leaving me simply preparing my end and praying for all men, those of the past, those of the present and those who will come until the end of the world.”
A holy priest, a zealous promoter of people both spiritually and socially, a pastor “with the smell of his sheep”, I invite especially my brother priests to look to this Argentine Cure of Ars for inspiration and example. His feast day is March 16.
Fr. Peter Short is the pastor of St. Joseph and Medre de Dios Parishes in Winslow. For many years he served as a parish priest in Argentina.