In January, Pope Francis will make his sixth trip to Latin America. He will travel to Peru and Chile, which shares a 3,200-mile border with Argentina. But the Holy Father won’t cross the frontier into his homeland. This is curious: when Pope John Paul II visited Chile in 1987, he made sure to visit Argentina as well.
In this age of papal globetrotting, non-Italian popes are expected to visit their native lands shortly after their elections. John Paul II was elected in October 1978 and visited Poland eight months later, in June 1979. Benedict XVI travelled to Germany just four months after the conclave of 2005. But four years and three months after becoming Pope, Francis still hasn’t set foot in Argentina.
Recent custom suggests that Francis should have visited his homeland in July 2013, when he travelled to Brazil. But the closest he came was addressing Argentine youth in Rio cathedral (famously telling them to “hacer lío” – “make a mess”).
Why does the Pope seem to be avoiding his homeland? There are competing theories. One is that Francis is, in effect, punishing Argentina’s centre-right president Mauricio Macri. The pair have clashed in the past: in 2012, they had a run-in over abortion when Macri was mayor of Buenos Aires. Last year the Pope granted an “icy” 22-minute audience to the president. He then rejected a charitable donation from Macri’s government (partly because the sum contained the number 666). According to this theory, Francis is denying Macri the publicity coup of receiving him in Argentina.
Others argue that the Pope is, in fact, planning to make Argentina the last stop on his frenetic global pilgrimage. That is, he will return there after resigning from the papacy, perhaps to live out his final years as a humble priest. Supporters of this theory note that he renewed his Argentine passport in 2014 and continues to travel with it.
Yet another explanation is that the Pope is simply being a faithful Jesuit. The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola promote an awe-inspiring detachment from earthly bonds. For centuries, Jesuits have been prepared to go where they are most needed. Francis is now the world’s parish priest. Having devoted 76 years to his homeland, he may justly feel that other countries deserve his attention. His priority is “the peripheries” – places such as Albania, Bolivia and the Central African Republic – rather than relatively comfortable nations like his own. As he reminded his countrymen rather bluntly last year, “The world is larger than Argentina.”
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