Both in Argentina and elsewhere, when the Vatican announced last week yet another papal trip to Latin America in which he’ll skip his native land, the question inevitably arose: “Why doesn’t Pope Francis want to visit home?”
As an Argentine myself, I understand the reaction. As a Vatican correspondent, however, I also found many of the explanations that have been offered a bit amusing.
Opinions have been a-dime-a-dozen: Some accused the pope of boycotting his own country (maybe out out of simple stubbornness), others claimed it was because he dislikes center-right Argentine President Mauricio Macri, and still others suspect it’s because he has differences with the local Catholic hierarchy.
For each commentator who weighed in, there was a different opinion. Many quoted on-the-record sources who said the pope is waiting for the time to be right, others quoted high-ranking officials of the Argentine government who, speaking on background, said they’re disappointed with the fact that once again, history’s first pope from the global south won’t be going back home.
There are those who claim the pope simply preferred the socialist government of Cristina Kirchner to that of Macri, because he’s welcomed her in Rome several times. Never mind that the reason for that open-door policy has been widely reported: He did so because, at the time, he feared his country’s democracy was at risk. He hasn’t met her since, not even while she made a short European tour earlier this year.
There are even those who claim the pope just doesn’t want to go back home, despite the fact that his only living sister, Maria Elena, is in Buenos Aires. Of all the theories floating around, that’s the easiest one to debunk.
Francis had his national ID renewed during the first year of his pontificate, and he still carries his Argentine passport around. It’s well-known that he’s asked a handful of Swiss guards to keep him updated on the scores in Argentine soccer, as is the fact that an endless string of co-nationals are always seen in the Santa Marta residence, the hotel on Vatican grounds where he lives.
He still makes regular phone calls back home, not only to talk to his friends but also to be close to people to whom he ministered, such as inmates in a prison in Buenos Aires he used to visit, as he himself revealed in October 2013.
Juan Grabois, an Argentine social leader who’s been tapped by the Vatican as a consultant for the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, put it this way in a radio interview: “It may have more to do with some situations in the Argentine church than because of the relationship with the government … [but] these are speculations that can be made without any real way to sustain them.”
Many Argentines who eagerly await a papal visit, do so in the hopes that he will help forge unity in a country that has increasingly become more divided for political reasons. Granted, it’s plausible to believe that if Francis saw an honest interest, and not a group of crows trying to claim him as their own for some political gain, he’d be on the first plane south.
But at the end of the day, popes know that no matter where they go, or who they welcome into the Vatican, many times their picture will be used for propaganda purposes. When the three last popes met Fidel Castro in Cuba, for instance, there was always the danger someone would see it as an endorsement.
According to Grabois, known for being close to the pope, local politics are far down the list of reasons in Francis’s calculations, if they rate at all. Beyond the petty clashes and fights for a picture with one of the world’s most influential leaders, there are other, bigger points to be made.
First of all, there’s no real tradition of popes going back to their places of origin. St. John Paul II, of course, did so a robust nine times, but there was a specific logic: During several of those papal visits, Poland was under Soviet occupation, and afterwards it was struggling to recover.
Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI visited Germany three times. The first outing, months after his election, was a trip originally planned for John Paul II to participate in World Youth Day Cologne. The second time came barely a year later, when he visited the university where he taught, Regensburg.
Yet it wasn’t until September 2011, a full six years after the beginning of his pontificate, that he paid his first and only state visit to his own country.
Pope Paul VI never went back to Milan, and Pope John XXIII never returned to Bergamo. Over the centuries, popes rarely left Rome, let alone taking a trip back home. That was in part related to the difficulties of travel, of course, but it was also a matter of tradition — once you became pope, or so the thinking went, your biography was subsumed into your office.
A second thing to consider when answering the question, “Why doesn’t Francis go to Argentina?” are the travel choices he’s made so far. To date, he’s visited 28 countries, with Colombia, Chile and Peru soon to be added to the list.
His visit to the United States, as with his trip to Brazil, was foreordained when Philadelphia was announced as host for the World Meeting of Families — a permanent, if rotating, feature on the papal agenda. The choice was made by Benedict XVI, and announced in Milan in 2012.
Beyond that, virtually every trip Francis has made had a strong leitmotif: He went to Central African Republic to preach about peace amidst a bloody civil war. He went to South Korea to encounter youth from Asia, and also to preach about deescalating tensions in the peninsula. He included Cuba in his U.S. tour after being credited by both countries with helping to normalize their relationship.
He visited the Greek island of Lesbos to shine a spotlight on the migrant crisis, a recurrent focal point on other trips, including his visit to Mexico.
He spent a handful of hours in Strasbourg, France, to address the European Union, where he urged leaders to continue working together and foster continental unity — for this same reason, he broke his self-imposed rule of not accepting honors and awards.
Francis went to Sweden, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Albania and Egypt to foster ecumenism, interreligious dialogue and reconciliation.
He’s visiting Colombia, after risking not a small amount of his political capital to push the peace negotiations forward. The deal signed, with the pope’s blessing, is designed to put an end to a five-decade old war.
He’s going to Chile where indigenous conflicts have the southern region on alert. He’s including Peru in the tour as a sign of unity and to try to heal a wound that has already been fixed on paper but which continues to bleed: The two, together with Bolivia, were protagonists of the last major Latin American war, known as “War of the Pacific.” Chile won, gaining considerable land from the other two countries, including Bolivia’s only access to the sea.
Here’s the bottom line: We Argentines are known for our egos. As Francis once famously joked, our favorite way to commit suicide is by climbing to the top of that ego and jumping off.
Perhaps it’s time we set our egos aside, however, and acknowledge that, no matter how much we want to see him go back — and no matter how much he’d undoubtedly love to go home and give his sister a bear-hug — at the end of the day, the pope has bigger fish to fry.