Pope Francis has flown over the massive Andes cordillera, visited the poor in several slums and shantytowns and rubbed shoulders with presidents in six visits to Latin America. But in five years as pope, he has never returned home to Argentina.
Resigned to that reality, tens of thousands of his fellow countrymen and women travelled to Chile this week to see Francis next door, some frustrated with his stubborn refusal and others assuming he must have his reasons.
“Argentines often ask themselves, ‘Why doesn’t he want to go home?’” said Sonia Fonseca, a housewife who came to Santiago to see Francis. “Apparently he doesn’t want to.”
“Argentines are behaving badly,” mused Gilberto Madriago, another Argentine who travelled to Santiago for the visit. “He is punishing us for sure.”
Francis did send a greeting message – strangely, in English – to his homeland as he flew over Argentina on Monday evening on his way to Chile. Not even that was received well. “Francis began his visit to Chile after sending a protocol message to Argentines,” the front page of La Nación said Tuesday. “Francis flew over Argentina and sent a cold message” read a headline in Clarín.
Most Vatican watchers attribute the pope’s reluctance to return home to his revulsion of being used by Argentina’s political factions, since any visit would involve a series of protocol visits, photo-ops and propaganda opportunities for whichever government is in power.
Before becoming pope, then-Buenos Aires archbishop Jorge Bergoglio was careful even to check who received Communion from him, since the gesture could be seen as an endorsement of the recipient.
Francis clashed with some of Argentina’s top leaders when he oversaw the local branch of the Church. At one point, he accused then-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s populist government of demagoguery, while she called his opposition to gay adoptions reminiscent of the Middle Ages and the Inquisition. Francis also clashed as archbishop with current President Mauricio Macri when the current president was mayor of Buenos Aires. In 2009, he became furious when Macri decided not to appeal when a gay couple sued the city for not issuing a marriage licence and won.
Since becoming pope, Francis has received both the current and former president at the Vatican. But the occasions have been far from warm.
As she walked out of church in Buenos Aires on Tuesday, Patricia Ledesma said she felt “disappointment” that Francis was celebrating Mass in Chile and not Argentina. “When they elected him pope, all Argentines wept tears of joy,” she said.
The government said Tuesday that that the pope’s decision is not politically motivated. “Argentina is his home, his land, and he doesn’t need an invitation,” Cabinet Chief Marcos Peña told reporters.