ROME – As spiritual leaders of 1.3 billion people, popes aren’t supposed to play favorites. Yet as human beings, they’ve often showed a soft spot for a particular religious movement, a specific Marian devotion, even certain countries – usually beginning with their own.
Pope Francis is no exception, confirming the special place of Argentina in his heart again this week with a letter to President Alberto Fernandez. It was dispatched shortly after Francis left Rome’s Gemelli Hospital and received at a time when Fernandez desperately needed a boost, since Argentina just went over 100,000 deaths due to COVID-19.
“I raise my prayers to the Lord Jesus so that, also in these difficult times because of the pandemic, he may grant the beloved Argentine people abundant blessings, so that they may advance along paths of justice, fraternity and progress,” Francis wrote in a letter sent to the Argentine government through the papal ambassador in the country.
The letter was sent July 15, the day after Pope Francis returned to the Vatican after a 10-day hospitalization following colon surgery. Fernandez, like many global leaders, had sent the pontiff a note wishing him a speedy recovery. Thus far, his government is the only one to have revealed a papal response.
Argentina’s president is currently facing blowback for what critics call one of the world’s worst handlings of the COVID-19 pandemic, to the point that Bloomberg recently labeled it the “worst” place to be during the global health crisis. Among other things, Argentina currently holds the highest number of deaths per capita and the poverty rate went up over 10 percent in the past 18 months, which means that close to half of the country cannot make ends meet.
Even though Pope Francis has yet to return to Argentina, he has offered several signs throughout the past eight years showing that, even though he can fly with a Vatican City State passport, he’s still very much Argentinian – including, for instance, the fact that he’s kept his national ID card up to date.
He’s also welcomed Argentine presidents more times than those of any other country- welcoming the past three at least twice each and personally intervened in the Latin American nation’s international debt, to the point that The New York Times carried an opinion piece under the header of “Can Pope Francis Deliver a Debt Miracle for Argentina?”
Back in 2016, Francis sent a video to his countrymen saying that he wouldn’t go back in 2017, in an effort to quash the rumors that a trip was in the works: “You don’t know how much I would like to see you again. 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.”
True as that statement might be, evidence shows there are few bigger soft spots for the pope than the land of Gauchos, red meat and Lionel Messi.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma