ROME — Sunday marks the third-year anniversary of Pope Francis’ election, and for a man who’s openly said he doesn’t like to travel, he’s done quite a bit of it: 12 international trips in 36 months, visiting 20 countries and every continent but Antarctica.
By now, Francis has worked out a template for these trips that reflects his priorities and background. Whenever a papal foray is announced, for instance, visits to a prison, a slum, and the local Jesuit community is always expected, even if they’re not included in the official program.
The reasoning is easy to infer:
- Inmates represent the victims of what Francis calls the “globalization of indifference.”
- The shanty towns embody “the peripheries and outskirts” of society.
- The Jesuits are his religious order, with which he had a rocky relationship at times over the years, so visiting communities presents an opportunity to build bridges.
Millions have come out to see Francis everywhere he goes, but the success of these trips is not really measured in numbers, but in how to-the-point the pontiff was when addressing the country’s reality.
In this sense, arguably his two trips to Spanish-speaking America — a tour of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Paraguay in 2015, and a visit to Mexico in February 2016 — have seen Francis, a self-defined “political animal,” at his edgiest.
Even if his messages are always meant to go beyond geographical borders, a pope goes to a country primarily to address its people, and there’s little doubt that it helps when many of those people happen to be Catholic.
“I think it’s logical that when the pope visits a country with a majority Catholic tradition, he thinks he already has a strong connection with the place,” said Juan Pablo Cannata, an Argentine professor in the sociology of communications.
Visiting a country with a Catholic identity, Cannata said, allows the pope to propose challenges more clearly, because he doesn’t have to “build a bridge” with the audience, as he has to do when visiting countries where Catholic concepts and traditions are not widely known. That seems to encourage Francis to be blunter and more challenging.
For instance, when Francis in November 2015 visited a slum in Kenya, where only a third of the local population is Catholic, he denounced a “dreadful injustice of social exclusion,” but placed responsibility for fixing things on the oft-ethereal “international community.”
Yet when he visited the shanty town Bañado Norte in Paraguay in July 2015, he went after “his own” by saying that a Catholic who goes to Mass on Sunday but remains unaware of the plight of the poor in their own city has a faith that is “weak, ill, or dead.”
In recent decades, Catholicism in Latin America has been struggling to fend off the advance of Evangelical and Pentecostal movements. This is one of the reasons why, instead of going back home to Argentina, when visiting the region Francis chose the four countries with the highest Catholic population in the region: Ecuador (79 percent), Mexico (81 percent), and Bolivia and Paraguay (89 percent each).
“The Latin American Church has a great wealth,” he told journalists traveling on the papal plane last July, coming back from his three-nation tour. “It’s a young Church with a certain freshness. I’ve wished to give encouragement to this young Church, and I believe that this Church can give us much.”
However, he’s had no qualms about being critical. In Ecuador, for instance, he said it’s wrong to call Latin America one of the “most Christian” continents in the world when there are so many who have nothing to eat.
Canata, who also serves as the director of a speech research center at Argentina’s Austral University, said that if Francis visits a country with a strong Catholic tradition, it’s reasonable to say that he has a better understanding of the situation on the ground, and even more so if he’s visiting Latin America.
“For instance, he has a stronger understanding of Paraguay than Spain,” he said. “He’s better equipped to decode the information he receives from his own continent than a remote country he’s never visited.”
Francis’ ability to flex political muscle has been proven time and time again, for instance in the role he played in the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba. Yet outside of Latin America, he’s usually mindful of local authorities, often skirting away from directly political issues.
Yet his February trip to Mexico was a different ballgame, as his instantly famous rhetorical spat with Donald Trump over immigration at the end vividly demonstrated.
In the run-up to the outing, the pope promised a “clear moral message,” saying he didn’t want to gloss over social ills such as corruption and drug violence, and by trip’s end he had certainly delivered.
Over six days, Francis visited five cities that belong to what he calls “the outskirts of society,” bringing attention to virtually every challenge facing Mexican society and, more broadly, the entire continent: the lack of job opportunities, a faulty educational system, discrimination against indigenous communities, the seemingly unstoppable violence of the drug cartels, immigration, and corruption.
Beyond Mexico City, his itinerary included Chiapas, the country’s poorest state, Morelia and Ecatepec, arguably the two cities most hit by organized crime, and Ciudad Juarez, on the border with the United States, and until not long ago known as the nation’s crime capital.
When he addressed local bishops, he was talking to prelates he met while he headed the Latin American bishop’s conference (CELAM), and whom he’d received at the Vatican in 2014.
When he spoke to the political class, he addressed people he’s met with before, with no need for an interpreter, and whose ideologies he knows well.
Francis demanded that the bishops not live like “princes,” calling on them to avoid “proud self-sufficiency,” insisting they embrace transparency and reject corruption by “trivial materialism,” gossip or intrigue, as well “unproductive groups that seek benefits or common interests.”
Only the bishops of the Roman Curia, who help him govern the Church and who Francis knows from working with them every day in the Vatican, ever got such a public scolding from the “Pope of Mercy.”
Francis was equally harsh with the political elite, notwithstanding the fact that he was the first pope in seven papal visits to be welcomed to the Presidential Palace.
“Mexico needs honest and upright leaders concerned about the many instead of the few,” he said.
“Experience shows us that whenever we seek the path of privilege or the benefit of a few to the detriment of the common good,” Francis said, “sooner or later life in society becomes a fertile ground for corruption, drug trafficking, exclusion of different cultures, violence, and even human trafficking, kidnapping, and death, causing suffering and hampering development.”
His comfort level was also evident in Paraguay, where speaking to a group of representatives of civil society that included President Horacio Cartes, Francis lambasted corruption and extortion.
“One method which does not give people the freedom to take on their responsibilities in society is extortion: you need to do this in order to obtain that,” he said. “Extortion is still corruption, and corruption is the gangrene of a people.”
In all these countries, he was as demanding of ordinary residents as he was of leadership.
Speaking to youth in Morelia, he told them to walk “hand in hand” with Jesus to find the strength to say “it’s a lie” that the “only way to live, or to be young, is to entrust oneself to drug dealers, in poverty and exclusion – the exclusion of opportunities, training and education, and hope.”
Addressing a meeting of popular movements in Bolivia, Francis said that the future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of “great leaders and the elites,” but in people and their ability to organize.
“Do we realize that the system has imposed the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature?” he said.
Francis called for a structural “process of change” because “this system is by now intolerable: farmworkers find it intolerable, laborers find it intolerable, communities find it intolerable, peoples find it intolerable … The earth itself also finds it intolerable.”