ROME – After the pope’s home country rejected its conservative incumbent president in favor of a left-wing ticket some locals felt was favored by the pontiff, Argentine media outlets are reporting that Francis has taken a homecoming next year off the table – in part, perhaps, because he doesn’t want such a trip to be seen as a victory lap for any political faction.
One sign of the sensitivity surrounding the idea of a trip is that no source contacted by Crux, either in Argentina or in Rome, was willing to confirm out loud what the pope is planning to do.
Since he was elected to the papacy in March 2013, Francis has gone to South America several times, visiting Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, yet he still hasn’t journeyed back to Argentina.
Reports coming from his home country claim that, despite what was reported earlier in the year, Francis will not be going next year either. The rumors over a possible return to Argentina were strong in May and became even stronger in July, when he gave an interview to La Nacion in which he was quoted as saying, “I would like to go to Argentina in 2020.”
Last week, during the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon but before Oct. 28 Argentine elections, Bishop Oscar Ojea, president of the bishops’ conference, said Francis wants to go either next year or in 2021. Yet the local bishops have offered no confirmation of those plans, suggesting it may be wishful thinking for the pope since he’s offered several times before.
The Vatican rarely comments on rumors of a papal trip, instead leaving the official announcement as the first and last word.
Many Argentine observers believe a papal visit next year could generate further division in a country heavily divided between those who support center-right President Mauricio Macri and those who support incoming center-left President elect Alberto Fernandez and his running mate, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.
The latter, a former president herself and the wife of a former president, faces 13 charges of corruption in Argentine courts. Reports before the Oct. 28 elections in Argentina claimed that Francis was behind the Fernandez-Fernandez formula, something denied both by the new president and by Vatican sources.
Fernandez de Kirchner ruled the country during the opening years of Francis’s papacy and he met her several times, both in Rome and during his trips abroad, but has refused to receive her since she left the presidency. Her husband, who led Argentina 2003-2007, once labeled then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio the head of the opposition.
By way of contrast, Francis met with Macri in Rome only once during his presidency, but several times before he became president in 2015.
During Macri’s four-year tenure, there were several rumors of a possible papal visit. The pope himself told the Argentine bishops in May that everything was set for him to go home in 2017, but the trip fell through the cracks.
Beyond theories that can be spun regarding why Francis hasn’t gone home yet, he gave a reason in 2016, when he sent a video to his countrymen saying he wouldn’t go back in 2017. The tape was meant to quash rumors that a trip was in the works.
“You don’t know how much I would like to see you again,” he said in the video. “And I won’t be able to do it next year either because there are commitments with Asia and Africa … and the world is bigger than Argentina.”
In effect, it was almost a papal appropriation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Evita based on the life of Peron’s second wife, with its famous tune, “Don’t cry for me, Argentina!”
Sources both in Argentina and in Rome consulted by Crux refused to either confirm or deny that Francis is once again thinking about postponing the trip. However, several said it would be a sensible idea, since his presence, they said, could foster polarization instead of unity.
Observers have pointed out that, rightly or wrongly, it would be seen as a clear wink to the Fernandez-Fernandez formula and a slap in the face for most middle-class, Catholic Argentines, who constitute Macri’s base and who eagerly waited for their pope to come home during the past six years.
Should Francis choose to make a trip home in 2020, there are several pastoral reasons to justify it, including the 500th anniversary of the first-ever Mass on Argentine soil and his desire to declare Blessed María Antonia de Paz y Figueroa, known as “Mama Antula,” a saint.
In 1767, when Paz y Figueroa was 37, more than 2,600 Jesuits were expelled from the Spanish territories in America under orders from the King of Spain. Afterwards, she made it her mission to keep Ignatian spirituality alive, organizing spiritual retreats throughout the region.
In a letter to a fellow Argentine in 2013, Francis, himself as Jesuit, said: “I too wish that María Antonia de Paz y Figueroa is soon beatified, and I’ve done already many efforts in the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.”
Francis declared her blessed, the step before sainthood, in 2016. A second miracle, needed for the canonization, sources have told Crux, is already being studied, which could provide a built-in exclamation point for his presence.
The decision, as ever, rests in his hands.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma
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