Can A Young Female Faith Healer In Blue Jeans Work A Miracle For Argentina’s Declining Catholic Presence?

He raised his hands and asked the 110,000 faithful packing the stadium to pray with him for the three-year-old toddler who couldn’t walk without heavy braces on his legs. Within moments his mother removed the braces and the child freely ran, laughing, up and down the aisles. It was 1954 and American preacher Tommy Hicks had come to Argentina. The story was that God had unveiled a vision to the pastor—a map of South America covered with ripe wheat, ready to harvest, when the wheat transformed to millions of human beings, hands raised, calling, “Come, Brother Hicks, come and help us!” Inspired, he left the U.S. and journeyed to Argentina where he healed President Juan Peron of his skin condition, and now enjoyed carte blanche of the nation’s major venues, healing scores, then hundreds, then thousands as part of that nation’s Christian revival.

Some decades later a new preacher, Carlos Annacondia, electrified the thousands with signs and wonders, but above all, healings. Then in 1992 the Holy Spirit came to Claudio Freidzon. Raising his arms to the heavens he urged the 65,000 in attendance at Velez Sarsfield stadium in Buenos Aires to “Receive the anointing!” The crowd responded with weeping and laughter; some fainted, others changed their lifestyles.

Argentina’s soil is fertile for faith healers.

But the style has changed with the needs of the moment and the entrance on the scene of social media and instantaneous communication. Forty-four-year-old Leda Bergonzi does not look the part of spiritual miracle worker. With her flowing long hair, skinny jeans, and high-top sneakers, she breaks the mold set by her predecessors in faith—a man of the cloth, garbed in the robes of the office, or at least in suit and tie.

But Bergonzi—who attracts overflow crowds in Rosario, Argentina’s third largest city; who collects medical studies to verify the healings she performs; who has a team spreading the viral word of her ministry through social media; whose singing is backed by a band and a light show that could easily be mistaken for the venue of touring rockers—has received the endorsement of local Catholic leaders. Rosario’s archbishop described her as “a phenomenon occurring within the Catholic church.”

A phenomenon could be just what the nation’s Catholic church needs. With the percentage of Argentines who identify as Catholics dropping within a decade from 76 percent to 49 percent, and with a new president-elect who has referred to the pope as a “presence of evil,” the church needs a miracle of its own to get the faithful attending Mass once more.

Leda Bergonzi—with her cadre of advisors, lawyers and Argentine sports heroes—may be that miracle, or at least be a pathway to one.

“In Catholicism, miracles are seen as something extraordinary and almost unattainable in life,” said Diego Mauro, a historian and coordinator of the Observatory of Religious Cultures at the University of Rosario. “Phenomena like Leda’s serve to rekindle the enchantment within Catholicism, which has, to some extent, lost its luster. Her own aesthetics help: a young, attractive woman with freshness, breaking all traditional molds of a healer priest in a cassock.”

20,000 people arrive weekly in Rosario to glimpse and have a chance to be touched and healed by Bergonzi. Tuesdays the pilgrims form a mile-long line to see her, many in wheelchairs, others on crutches—camped overnight, waiting and hoping.

The service begins with a Mass and Eucharistic adoration, watched over by a priest. Then Bergonzi appears. The band accompanying, she sings—eyes closed, head tossed backward, her right arm waving with the music, walking, swaying, then speaking in tongues as the Spirit moves her.

She then begins her work. For nearly 12 hours—interrupted by short breaks and subsisting only on Gatorade and Halls lozenges—she lays her hands on believer after believer. Sometimes whispering to them, other times praying over them. People weep, some convulse, many faint. Bergonzi says she never remembers what she says to people, but she can tell at once if a person has been healed.

Bergonzi—who identifies as an intermediary, “a normal person, just like you all, going through a call from God,”—says, “To be in a church, what people need is that spirituality and that impactful encounter with God. I always say this is a spirituality of impact.”

That impact is felt by a 56-year-old former bricklayer blinded in a traffic accident. “Thanks to God and Leda’s touch, I started seeing again.” A mother brings her paralyzed 21-year-old daughter to Bergonzi hoping for some improvement in the young woman who can no longer speak or eat on her own. Her body relaxes at Bergonzi’s touch. She mouths, “She is God,” to her mother, who herself feels an ineffable sense of peace come over her. “Something reached me,” the mother said. “Something I needed.”

It’s not known how many Leda Bergonzi’s ministry will return to the Catholic embrace. Many who travel to see her say they’re not regular churchgoers but are in desperate need of physical healing for themselves or their loved ones.

The focus on physical, rather than spiritual healing worries some within the church. Pablo Savoia, a priest at Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Buenos Aires and a frequent commentator on Catholicism,warned Catholics not to get carried away.He said the Church must “discern the veracity of this phenomenon.”

“Let us not be dazzled by spectacular gifts,” he said.

Nancy Geist, who attended one of Bergonzi’s services with her husband, said, “Nowadays, you believe and don’t believe in these things. Some people reach you, and some don’t,” but she felt Bergonzi truly believed in what she was doing. “She has a charisma that draws you in. She captures you.”

Leda Bergonzi has also had the thought that people are attracted to her and her healing gift rather than to God. “The day that happens, I’ll run,” she says.

Photo credits: Visit of Leda Bergonzi to the Votive Temple of Maipú by Jorgebarrios. CC BA-SA 4.0

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