In his five years as Pope, Francis has never returned to Argentina, despite visiting all its neighbours bar one. When he travelled to Chile in January, an Associated Press reporter asked an Argentine pilgrim why the Pope hadn’t visited his homeland. “Argentines are behaving badly,” he replied. “He is punishing us for sure.”

Pope Francis has written a remarkable letter to his countrymen that aims, in part, to dispel this negative impression. Responding to a letter from prominent Argentines congratulating him on his fifth anniversary, the Pope underlined his “great and intense” love for his country. He then apologised to all “those who may be offended by some of my gestures”, adding: “Although God entrusted me with such an important task and He helps me, He didn’t free me from human frailty. That’s why I can make mistakes like everyone else.”

It is not clear what precisely Francis was asking forgiveness for. The Argentine press suggested it was for receiving a variety of controversial politicians both from the government and opposition. But perhaps he was simply saying sorry for not returning home despite ample opportunities.

Yet the letter wasn’t solely a mea culpa. The Pope also made a subtle but unmistakable intervention in a debate currently convulsing Argentina. Congress is considering a bill to decriminalise abortion. In his letter Francis pointedly urged Argentines to be “channels of goodness and beauty, so that you can make your contribution in the defence of life and justice”. We must wait to see if this will be enough to stop the bill, which would legalise abortion during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy.

The polling firm Analogías reported this month that 82 per cent of Argentines have a positive impression of Francis, while only 3.8 per cent have a “very bad” one. The Pope doesn’t appear to have a problem with the Argentine public then, but rather with the political class. This dates back to his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, when he clashed with populist president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who dubbed him “chief of the opposition”. Francis has had a scarcely less complicated relationship with Kirchner’s successor, Mauricio Macri.

Many observers think that Francis is refusing to visit Argentina because he doesn’t want to hand Macri a publicity coup. But there is unlikely to be just one reason. Another factor may be the Pope’s complicated relationship with some local bishops who resisted his rise in the Argentine Church.

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