ROME – Pope Francis’s successor as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires has said that although the pontiff shortly will meet a new Argentine president who’s publicly called him an “imbecile” and a “son of a bitch,” the pontiff is capable of looking past such bromides because he “plays in the major leagues.”
Archbishop Jorge Ignacio García Cuerva of Buenos Aires also voiced hope that the pontiff will make a long-awaited return visit to his native country this year, but said Argentinians must stop politicizing the pope.
With regard to Milei, Cuerva said, “The pope plays in the major leagues, he is capable of recognizing the importance of institutional relations between states, the institutional relations between the president and the church, and therefore, with a heart of greatness, he leaves those questions aside.”
Speaking to journalists during a Feb. 8 press conference on the upcoming canonization of Blessed María Antonia de Paz y Figueroa, colloquially known as “Mama Antula,” Cuerva said a papal trip to Argentina “is the one we all want.”
“I think that the people want to meet their pastor beyond different issues, I believe that the simple people, the Argentine people, want to meet their pastor, and I believe that the people also want not only to see him, but to hear him. We need his word, we need his physical presence,” he said.
According to Cuerva, since the election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as pope in 2013, “We Argentinians have not let Bergoglio be Francis.”
“We have always put him deep inside us, in our cracks, in our discussions. We have always been aware of whether or not the current president smiled in the photo or how many minutes he received one president or another, and I think that we have to learn to discover and value Francis as a world leader,” he said.
In terms of whether Francis will visit Argentina later this year, Cuerva said, “The pope has expressed that he always has the desire. Whether he can do it or not, of course it depends on him.”
Pope Francis, who has repeatedly voiced his desire to visit Argentina in the latter half of this year, remains a deeply controversial figure in his native country.
Many Argentinians are bitter that the pope has not yet made a return visit in his nearly 11 years in office. Francis has frequently insisted that he does not want a return trip to be manipulated by a political agenda or twisted to support any political party, and believes the timing has just not been right.
In previous interviews, the pope said he was scheduled to visit Argentina in 2017 during a trip that would have also included stops in Chile and Uruguay. However, Chile’s president at the time, Michelle Bachelet, asked him to postpone the trip until after that year’s presidential elections.
As a result, the trip was rescheduled at a time when he was unable to make the stop in Argentina, so in the end he only visited Chile and Peru, leaving Argentina and Uruguay for another time.
If a papal trip happens this year, it would not only be one of the most significant international trips of Francis’s papacy, but it would also take place at a sensitive time politically, given the shocking list of statements and insults the country’s new president, Javier Milei, launched at the pope on the campaign trail.
Elected in November, during his campaign Milei called Pope Francis an “imbecile,” a “communist,” and a “son of a bitch,” among other things. Since taking office, his tone has thawed, and he has even thanked Francis for economic advice on navigating the country’s inflation and poverty rates.
Milei will travel to Rome for the Feb. 11 canonization of Mama Antula and will have a private audience with Pope Francis the next day, on Monday, Feb. 12, at the Vatican. It will mark their first in-person encounter since Milei’s election, though the two have previously spoken over the phone.
According to Cuerva, Milei’s presence at the canonization of Mama Antula “is valued” by Argentinians, and must be seen “with institutional eyes.”
“Today the president is Mr. Javier Milei and therefore his presence, as well as that of other representatives of the national government, is important because it is an important fact for Argentina,” he said.
Asked whether Milei’s presence and his meeting with the pope can help to improve relations between Milei’s government and the Argentine bishops’ conference amid enduring tensions over some of Milei’s previous remarks, Cuerva said the relationship between church and state right now “is good.”
“It is a new government, a government that has been in power for more than two months, so relations are cordial, they are institutional relations, that is how I believe they should be and surely from this fact they can be strengthened,” he said.
Noting that Pope Francis himself called Milei to congratulate him after his election and has said that campaign rhetoric is inflammatory and that what happens in office is important, Cuerva said he takes these words to heart.
“Francis has more of Francis than Bergoglio in this,” Cuerva said, saying the pope through his own attitude “teaches us Argentinians once again what the gesture we have to have should be.”
Speaking of Mama Antula’s canonization, which will make her the first saint to be born and die on Argentinian soil, Cuerva said it sends a positive message to Argentinians who have been living in a state of economic and social crisis for decades.
“We Argentines have been going through a situation of crisis for some time, I believe that for at least the past 40 years of democracy we have lived difficult situations which today can be summarized in more than 40 percent poverty and more than 10 percent of destitution,” he said.
In this context, Mama Antula, a consecrated laywoman and fierce promoter of charitable works and the Ignatian spiritual exercises, sends a message that goes beyond social classes, as during her 10-day spiritual retreats she preached to both the aristocracy and the poor.
Mama Antula was also a woman of joy, Cuerva said, saying, “in critical times Christians have to be more joyful than ever. Not because we are optimistic, but because the best joy for us is the good news of the Risen Jesus.”
Cuerva also praised Mama Antula as a “bold and creative woman” who became a protagonist in preaching the Gospel to the people of her time, and lauded her “restless and missionary spirit.”
“She was an eternal nonconformist, and I hope we are too. May we not experience the despair of believing that Argentina cannot move forward. Let’s keep dreaming yes,” he said.
The canonization also points to the importance of laypeople, and especially of women, being protagonists in the church, he said, saying the canonization “speaks of this audacity and this apostolic creativity that she had in difficult moments in Argentina.”
By raising her to the altar, the pope, he said, “is encouraging us to live those notes of holiness in today’s world.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on X: @eliseannallen