ROME—Since the very beginning of his pontificate, Argentines have been trying to gauge Pope Francis’s relationship with the national political scene, accusing him of both meddling too much and too little.
Over the weekend, however, Francis sent an unmistakably political message to his native country: Put an end to corruption.
From June 16-20, Argentina celebrated its 11th National Eucharistic Congress, and since the pope himself couldn’t attend – despite rumors he would – he sent a personal envoy, Italian Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, former president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for Latin America.
During the days he was in Francis’ home country, Re not only attended the congress, but held private meetings with several bishops. He also met with President Mauricio Macri minutes before celebrating the gathering’s closing Mass, attended by more than 150,000 people.
“The Eucharist is light for the service of the common good and for the contributions Christians must offer to social and political life, which needs today more than ever a break that leads to an end to corruption and a real renewal and progress in honesty, moral rectitude, justice and solidarity,” Re said in his homily.
While the country is heavily divided by what has been labeled as “the crack” between those who support the center-right government of Macri and those who back the leftist former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the papal envoy called the Eucharist an “invitation to reconciliation, solidarity and commitment to the poor, the elderly, those who suffer, the small and the marginalized.”
It’s not the first time a papal envoy to a Eucharistic congress has spoken of matters of social concern. For instance, last January, in the opening of an international Eucharistic congress held in the Philippines, Cardinal Charles Bo of Yagon, Myanmar, declared a war on poverty.
“The Eucharist calls for … a third world war against poverty,” Cardinal Bo said. “A third world war against the cruelty of dogs getting fed with sumptuous, organic food, while poor children scramble for scraps from the table.”
But the specific appeal to fight corruption wasn’t a random one in Argentina, where payoffs, kickbacks and government corruption are considered part of everyday life, with the lack of transparency, and generalized impunity, dating back from the 1990s that has triggered an increased uncertainty among investors.
Former President Kirchner is currently facing allegations of fraudulent derivatives trading by the country’s central bank, several cases of money laundering, and falsifying public documents. The recent arrest of one of Argentina’s most wanted fugitives has also put her administration under examination for possible links to drug trafficking rings.
Her former Vice President, Amado Budou, was indicted in 2014, while still in office, on passive bribery and influence peddling charges, and is still being investigated for several other offenses and/or crimes. He’s a defendant in a total of ten cases in the Federal Courts.
Macri, along with many other regional leaders, including Kirchner, was also hit hard by the Panama papers scandal.
Even the pope’s own pet-project, the pontifical foundation Scholas Ocurrentes, has been making headlines in the last weeks after Francis accused its leadership of being at risk of becoming corrupt.
Re’s appeal came only days after José López, Kirchner’s Secretary of Public Works, was arrested for being caught in flagranti as he tried to bury nine million dollars in a monastery in General Rodriguez, a city within the urban agglomeration of Greater Buenos Aires, Francis’ former diocese.
It was clear from his address that he was speaking with a direct papal blessing.
“In the name of Pope Francis, who from Rome is closely following this congress, with deep feelings I greet every Argentine,” Re said.
His remarks, beyond being deeply rooted in reality- and hardly possible to interpret as addressed to only one political constituency- are also a mirror to the homilies the pope would give in Buenos Aires, when he was still Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
For over a decade there was a rift between the national governments of Nestor and Cristina Kirchner (she succeeded her husband’s only term) and Bergoglio, with the presidents refusing to attend the Te Deum Argentina’s primate celebrated every May 25, commemorating the beginning of the nation’s independence revolution in 1810.
In 2012, during the last Te Deum he headed before being elected pope, Bergoglio denounced that no one “takes ownership” of the “crimes, tragedies, heavy debts we [Argentines] have to pay for cases of corruption.”
A year earlier, Bergoglio’s homily had focused on reconciliation, another key element of Re’s address, when he called his country to follow the path of those who “fought for the Nation beyond their differences.”
Although often portrayed as attacks on the previous Kirchner governments, the cardinal’s words during these religious ceremonies were in fact destined for the Argentine society as a whole, and to those who at the time were members of the opposition, such as Macri, who as mayor of Buenos Aires often attended the service.
“All of us, from our responsibilities, must put the Nation on our shoulders, because time is running short,” he said once. “We don’t have to wait for everything from those who govern us.”
Argentines are often all too ready to see everything Francis does as a direct gesture to them, including a Tweet over labor day. It remains to be seen, however, if both sides of the rift currently dividing the country will take this appeal to heart.