Earlier this year an Argentine priest struggling to understand the Vatican’s controversial closure of one of the country’s top seminaries wrote to Pope Francis seeking answers.

The priest, maintaining his fidelity and that of his brother priests to the Second Vatican Council, as well as their devotion to the sacraments, the spiritual life, and the sick, inquired whether a literal reading of Vatican II meant the presbyterate was overly rigid.

“Is this rigidity bad? Is it ideology? Don't we have a place in the Church today?” he asked.

Pope Francis wrote him back. 

“In your letter you point out to me that they have taken the Second Vatican Council literally and immediately afterwards you ask me if rigidity is bad,” the pope wrote.

“Dear son, rigidity is not a gift from God, meekness yes, kindness yes, benevolence yes, forgiveness yes, but rigidity no!”

The frank exchange — spelled out in letters obtained by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language sister news agency — sheds new light on the Vatican’s controversial closure of Holy Mother of God Seminary in November 2020, and the resulting tension that still plagues the Argentine Diocese of San Rafael.

The seminary controversy

The San Rafael seminary, located in the province of Mendoza, was one of the most successful in Argentina and all of Latin America, with many vocations.

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It figured prominently in tensions that developed in mid-2020 between some priests and faithful of the diocese and its bishop at the time, Eduardo María Taussig.

Among the sources of conflict was Taussig’s announcement in June 2020, tied to the restart of public worship suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that Communion could only be received standing and in the hand, and not on the mouth and on the knees.

Protests Nov. 1 in San Rafael, Argentina. . Andrea Greco
Protests Nov. 1 in San Rafael, Argentina. . Andrea Greco

A decree issued by the Holy See mandated the seminary’s closure in November of 2020. The Congregation for the Clergy informed Taussig this was due to trouble maintaining a seminary rector — having had seven in the past 15 years. 

The seminary’s closure sparked public protests and Rosary rallies outside the bishop’s residence, as well as caravans of cars through other cities in the diocese.

Pope Francis accepted Taussig’s resignation on Feb. 5, 2022, about a year and a half after the decision to close the seminary.

The priest’s letter

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Father Ramiro Sáenz, a priest from Our Lady of the Rosary Church in the San Rafael Diocese, originally sent a letter to Pope Francis dated April 17, 2022, telling him about the sufferings of the local Catholic community and asking him questions.

“As you know, we have lived through very hard times and with many misunderstandings. We are a part of the Church of Christ that has been entrusted to you. We love Christ, we love the Blessed Virgin, we love the Church that you preside over,” Sáenz wrote.

“We confess, we do missions, we preach retreats, we have several chapels for perpetual adoration (in almost all parishes they used to worship all night on Holy Thursday), we pray the Divine Office and the Rosary daily, we meditate, we read the great masters of spiritual life, we care for the sick and those most in need, almost all of us have risked our lives caring for COVID patients,” he continued.

“We are not perfect but we want to work for Christ and his Church. Your Holiness, please believe in our good will,” he wrote.

“Almost all of us have been formed without breaking fractures with the Second Vatican (Council). We have taken the Decree on Priestly Training and the Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests [which relate to priestly formation] literally. Is this rigidity bad? Is it ideology? Don't we have a place in the Church today?”

Sáenz went on to refer to an image — the polyhedron — that Pope Francis has used, beginning when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, when speaking about belonging in a global society.

The polyhedron allows each geometrical side to have its own particular and unique shape, even if the entire shape is around one center, as opposed to a sphere wherein the entire perimeter is equidistant to and surrounds the center in the same way.

“Isn't there a little face for us in the polyhedron?” Sáenz asked the pope.

"We had a diocese fruitful in priests and apostolic works. Don't let it stagnate. Today the world needs us more than ever. Through the wounds of Christ, I commend our Diocese, its priests, and its faithful to you," the priest's letter concluded.”

Pope Francis' response

Pope Francis responded in a letter dated July 9, 2022.

"I appreciate your trust and your sincerity. I know you are going through a difficult time; believe me, it is for me too. I am sure that there are many who do not stop working selflessly for the People of God, bringing consolation and peace through the sacraments and the Word," the pope wrote.

“In your letter you point out to me that they have taken the Second Vatican Council literally and immediately afterwards you ask me if rigidity is bad. I must tell you that it is one thing to walk in the law of the Lord, as the psalm invites us to pray (“Happy is the man who walks in the law of the Lord”) and quite another is rigidity,” the Holy Father observed.

“Dear son, rigidity is not a gift from God; meekness yes; kindness yes; benevolence yes; forgiveness yes; but rigidity no! Because as you yourself intuit, rigidity is the prelude to the ideology that does so much harm and that led the rigid of Jesus' time to condemn him for putting mercy above the law," Pope Francis wrote.


Later in the letter, the Holy Father wrote that “of course, in the Church of Jesus, which is the same yesterday, today and always, we all have a place, EVERYONE! That is why rigidity is not possible, because it closes the doors to 'everyone' and only keeps them ajar for the 'perfect ones.'”

“I am sure that in your heart as a good shepherd there is also room for everyone. I take your words: 'Today the world needs us more than ever.' I am counting on you,” Pope Francis wrote, concluding by asking the priest to pray for him, as is the pope’s custom in his writings and speeches.

In December 2021, just over a year after the seminary closed, the Diocese of San Rafael reported that 12 seminarians were sent to seminaries in four other dioceses. The diocese did not disclose how many seminarians left priestly formation due to the controversy.

This story was originally reported by Walter Sanchez Silva and published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.