The first time I encountered José Álvarez Franco, better known as Padre Patillas, or “Father Sideburns”, was during a baptismal service in his church in Tateposco, when he referred to me as a “gringo” during the mass, prompting laughter throughout the congregation. He had got facts wrong, I’m actually a limey; but it didn’t really matter, the impression had been made: this was a priest with an unconventional style.
This impression was strengthened by the setting of the church, an elegant red brick building perched high in the hills of Tateposco; there were a collection of animals, chickens, and cats living behind the building, with dogs wandering in and out during the service.
It also became clear that Padre Patillas’ renegade approach extended into his politics. Before the service, a speaker was invited to the altar to protest the reforms of the Mexican President, Enrique Peña Nieto. The priest himself announced: “this is the church of the poor, not of the rats working in government!”
This confrontational style contributed to his suspension from the church in 1983. Following this, he continued organizing and protesting with the people of his district, and even came into conflict with local authorities. “The police came here once twenty years back and they wanted to take me away, so we gave them a few smacks and sent them on their way,” he boasted.
The years have certainly not tamed him. Padre Patillas remains as fiery as ever. In an expletive laden video of a visit between the priest and the local National Action Party (PAN) deputy, Héctor Álvarez Contreras, he was asked by the politician about his choice of language: “Father, why do you speak like that?”
“The people who don’t use the language of the poor are against them,” he said. “The language of the poor is the most beautiful, and we as people who love the poor, must use their language.”
Such was the animosity between him and the conservative Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, that there were even rumors, sparked by the local television Channel 7, that he was behind the drug cartel assassins that shot the cardinal dead. Padre Patillas now sees these claims as amusing: “They came here to interview me, expecting to find a great thug from the mountains, but there I was: a short, fat priest.”
Yet such attacks from the church hierarchy and media have only strengthened his status amongst his supporters. “He has always been admired and seen as a role model by many of the younger generation of priests in Mexico,” says Dr. Renée de la Torre, a local academic. The Cuban journalist Carlos Rafael Diéguez even described him as the “highest representative of the gospel in Mexico.”
The renegade priest’s language draws on the themes of liberation theology; a political movement that developed in the 1970’s and takes its name from a book by the Peruvian Gustavo Gutiérrez. In this book, A Theology of Liberation, Gutiérrez argues that it is a Christian duty to free people from poverty by addressing institutional sin.
Many liberationists see things such as rosary beads and devotion to saints, among other forms of religiosity popular in Latin America, as non-transformative; irrelevant distractions that keep people docile.
Critics of the movement have called it Marxism, a secular invasion of the church that redefines liberation as freedom from economic hardship, rather than from the true slavery of sin. Pope Benedict XVI even called the movement “a fundamental threat to the faith of the church.”
Yet a combination of ecclesiastical measures, instigated by Pope John Paul II, and continued by his predecessor, diminished the influence of liberationists. Conservatives were routinely appointed to the top church positions in Mexico, a trend that was imitated across the continent.
“Once the bishops, and the Pope, began actually using their authority,” said Professor Edward Lynch, of Hollins College in Virginia, “it forced the liberationists to make the stark choice of defecting, and losing much of their standing with devout Latin Americans, or remaining in the Church and submitting to the loss of many of their institutional bases.”
Yet the language of liberation theology assumed a new relevance following the global financial crisis of 2008, and the hierarchy that had targeted the liberationists was itself being undermined by a series of abuse scandals that rocked the standing of the church worldwide.
The appointment of Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope, in 2013, further opened the church to liberationist ideas. This was a man who had preached in the slums, who saw social action as essential, not heretical.
Indeed, one of the Pope’s first gestures was to invite Gustavo Gutiérrez to Rome. He then called for the beatification of Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of El Salvador who had been shot dead by a government assassin while celebrating Mass in 1980.
His language has shown a new openness to left wing concerns. He has called for a “legitimate redistribution of wealth,” saying governments should work to end the “economy of exclusion” that exploits the poor.
This change in tone is not lost on Padre Patillas, who has a banner next to his altar in Tateposco that quotes the new Pope: “to be a modern Christian is to be a revolutionary.”
Yet the priest is also keen to emphasize the biblical orthodoxy of his beliefs: “Whether or not I follow liberation theology is not so important, I follow Pope Francis,” he said. “I promoted these ideas in the past, but we are not in service to socialism. We are in service to the gospel.”
In performing this service, he has become something of a celebrity. The protest singer Andres Contreras has even written a corrido celebrating him: “My song is a protest, against all of the aggressions, that an honest priest has suffered, a priest without greedy ambitions, that’s at the side of the poor in all of their afflictions.”