ROME — Despite stating at the outset that he didn’t like travel and didn’t plan to do much of it, during the first six years of his pontificate Pope Francis made close to 30 international trips, including visiting virtually every country of Latin America. Yet there’s one glaring exception: His home country, Argentina.
Speaking with a group of Argentine bishops on Thursday, Francis expressed his desire to go home in the near future, perhaps as soon as 2020, though participants in the meeting said no firm commitment was made.
“He repeatedly expressed his desire to visit us,” said Archbishop Andres Stanovnik of Corrientes, “but the challenge is his agenda.”
Speaking with a group of Argentine journalists writing for Argentinian news outlets in St. Peter’s Square after a two-hour meeting with Francis, Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez of La Plata said the pope gave no confirmation or denial that a homecoming could happen next year.
“We know that it’s very difficult,” he said.
Stanovnik and Fernandez are two of roughly 30 bishops from Argentina who are currently in Rome participating in the ad limina visit, meaning “to the threshold” of the apostles, that the world’s bishops pay to the Eternal City every five years. They form the first of three groups that will bring the country’s 100 bishops to the Vatican before the end of May.
In an interview with Crux after the meeting, Archbishop Eduardo Martin of the central city of Rosario confirmed the talk of a trip, saying the possibility was “one of the first things we talked about,” and Francis said that “we missed an opportunity recently because there were difficulties in one of the countries I wanted to visit.”
Though it wasn’t spelled out, it may be that Francis was referring to Venezuela, which has been gripped by a deep political and economic crisis since at least 2015, and which currently is witnessing a power struggle between rival claimants to the president.
Given the local bishops’ outspokenness against President Nicholas Maduro, the successor of Hugo Chavez, it’s unclear if Francis would even be welcomed in Venezuela should he try to visit.
In any event, prelates from his home country came away with the clear impression that Francis is serious about going home.
“This is not something the pope said, but that I inferred from our conversation,” Martin said. “The pope has the intention, the plan, to go to Argentina, but no date yet.”
This was the second ad limina visit for Martin, who was appointed a bishop by Pope emeritus Benedict XVI in 2006 and then sent to Rosario by Francis in 2014. He said he noticed a “big change” in the dynamics between the first time he came to Rome in 2009 as compared to what he experienced this week.
“There’s a clear change of attitude in [Vatican departments],” he said. “It’s no longer the heads of the dicasteries telling us what to do, but there’s an attitude of listening, of understanding what our concerns are.”
Martin said they did get some concrete answers, but they were to questions the bishops posed either during the meetings or that they had sent in November of last year.
Beyond the fact that the meetings were fruitful, the prelate said the pilgrimage to Rome is worth it because it’s an opportunity for the bishops to renew their “obedience and communion with the pope,” and it’s also a time for them to renew their faith.
“These are the central things, everything else is in in second place,” Martin said. “We didn’t come to have a handful of bureaucratic meetings, but to encounter the Vicar of Christ on earth.”
Of their two-hour encounter with Francis, Martin said it was “extraordinary,” and that they had the opportunity to ask him questions and also express their affection to the pontiff.
“We asked him in particular about matters that have to do with the life of the Church,” including the priesthood, religious life, the seminaries and poverty.
“He called us to be witnesses of the fact that Christ is at the center of our lives,” Martin said.
The prelates also spoke with the pope about the existence of “social tension” in their country, in part related to tensions over the possible decriminalization of abortion.
“You know there’s a polarization in Argentina, and with the debate over abortion that polarization grew even more,” Fernandez said. “[The pope] mentioned that he’s hurt by this, because it leads to there being young people who are reticent about listening to us after all this period of arguing.”
For the first time in over a decade, President Mauricio Macri allowed the Argentine Congress to debate abortion last year, and even though the decriminalization bill won approval in the lower house, it was blocked by the senate. Millions of people took to the streets last year, rallying both in favor and against abortion.
In March of this year, in a signal with clear political connotations in a national election year, close to two million people rallied across the country under the motto “Save both lives,” meaning that of the mother and the unborn child.
Speaking with Crux, Martin said the question of abortion came up during the conversation with Francis, and the pope’s proposed solution was evangelization.
“Certainly, evangelizing those who are away from the faith is our biggest challenge right now,” Martin said. “We need to reach those people who’ve been influenced by secularization, those who, despite being baptized, are in favor of abortion.”
“Another challenge, along the same lines, is reaching young people, because it’s with them that our hope lies, giving them the opportunity of encountering Jesus Christ – which will, in time, help them develop a mentality that respects life, that’s charitable,” Martin said.
Growing in faith allows young people to “understand the natural truths that for us are so obvious, like the call to defend life from the moment it’s conceived until natural death,” he said.