15 February 2007

Religion in Rosario: Ignacio Peries

Father Ignacio is one my pet peeves... one of those I spoke about in my last post. Ignacio is a middle-aged Catholic priest originally from Sri Lanka (his full name is Ignacio Peries Kurukulasuriya). He has a beard and bright eyes on a dark complexion, and he speaks Spanish with a monotone accent, all of which contributes to a "magnetic" quality of his among the gullible masses. He supposedly has healing powers, or at the very least the power to look at sick people and tell them what disease or problem afflicts them, or what they should do about it. As his fame increased, his followers mounted a bureaucratic structure around him, with secretaries giving out thousands of numbers to see the man one month in advance. The little church of the Nativity of the Lord in a poor barrio of Rosario was turned into a place of pilgrimage to see Padre Ignacio and try to get a touch, a glance, a word from him.

Ignacio has among his devotees a couple of members of the local media, and rubs elbows with the best of the best of the local aristocracy — Catholic businessmen, politicians, public opinion shapers — from whom he gets juicy donations. You won't find negative references to Ignacio Peries in the press, though you can dig up a lot anecdotical evidence if you ask around. The guy undoubtedly has a short-term positive effect on many people, but other than that, what has he done?

After gaining fame, in 1998, Ignacio was appointed to lead the Crusade of the Holy Spirit, seemingly a long-term operation aimed at building his own seminary, funded by high-priced lunch meetings with Rosario's VIP class. That year he got donations for US$500,000, which he used to buy a 30,000 m² estate and build a house for the seminarists. He did help other projects, such as schools and healthcare centers, but neither the Crusade nor the normal activities of the parish include the use of Ignacio's enormous popularity to do anything truly significant but reinforce his image.

On Crucifixion Friday every year, Ignacio leads a Via Crucis that gathers thousands (150,000 people); buses have to be re-routed, the neighbourhood is invaded by pilgrims who leave a trail of trash behind them, and local TV channels cancel other programmes to broadcast the event, as Ignacio's media and politics friends scramble to appear in the picture.

As per usual policies of the church, Ignacio should have been assigned to another parish years ago, but two archbishops have so far tolerated him, even as many local priests, off the record, abhor his sensationalist exposure. It's a common occurrence to hear people speaking of a problem and how Ignacio is surely going to help if only they manage to get a word with him or show him a photo of a loved one — which makes me cringe.

The guy has all the mannerisms of a fake guru, and the same kind of followers: people whose only trouble is how to spend their time and imagine they have all sorts of problems; people who need reassurance from a higher power; and (the saddest part) people who are truly very ill, or have relatives who are very ill. Some claim Ignacio can guess what's troubling you without so much as a quick look, or even at a distance, and that he's been able to diagnose medical conditions then confirmed by doctors. Others get vague advice: "We must wait and pray", "Have faith", "Everything's gonna be OK".

Quite naturally, and as it happens with diviners all around the world, Ignacio's foretelling works at random but only his successes are recorded and exalted. To his credit, I'm told he always tells supplicants not to abandon proper medical assistance and treatment. Some undoubtedly are beyond that possibility by the time they look for supernatural healing. It just goes against my instincts and my intellectual stance to accept that, maybe, those people might profit from abandoning reason and devoting themselves to wishful thinking while they die.

It's quite possible that Ignacio actually believes he has a God-given power and a mandate to heal and comfort. What I find uncomfortable is the mass phenomenon, not the man. The politicians' and media people's attempts to appear next to Ignacio is comprehensible (their livelihood depends on subservience to the public opinion) but disgusting nonetheless. That the Church looks the other way to avoid harming one of its few sources of popular prestige in the area is also natural, and equally disgusting.

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