As Pope Francis Heads to Chile and Peru, Argentina Feels Snubbed, Again
BUENOS AIRES — It was a sweltering afternoon at the rundown central bus station in Argentina’s capital, but Amelia Cartes Novoa was beaming despite the intolerable heat.
“I’m so excited,” Ms. Cartes said as she waited on a platform for the bus that would take her on a 21-hour ride across the Andes. She was on her way to attend a Mass that Pope Francis will celebrate in Santiago, Chile’s capital, on Tuesday.
“I’ve done this trip many times before but this one is particularly special,” she said.
Ms. Cartes is among the tens of thousands of Argentines planning to make a pilgrimage to Chile during the peak of the summertime holiday to catch a glimpse of the pope, who was born here in Buenos Aires. Much to the chagrin of many of his countrymen, Francis has not set foot in his homeland since his election in March 2013.
In contrast, Pope John Paul II visited his native Poland in 1979, less than a year after he became pontiff. His successor, Pope Benedict XVI, went to his homeland, Germany, during his first foreign trip in 2005.
But almost five years after Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires became the first Pope from Latin America, the decision by Francis to steer clear from Argentina has left many faithful feeling perplexed and dejected.
“It’s very frustrating that he seems to make time for everyone else except us,” said Geraldine Sanchez, 19, a nanny, as she walked outside Francis’s childhood home in the middle-class neighborhood of Flores. The otherwise nondescript spot is now marked with a plaque: “Pope Francis was born in this house.”
The pope has not spoken at length about why he has not visited Argentina, which analysts attribute at least in part to a reluctance to get swept up in the country’s polarized politics.
It is not that Francis has ignored South America, a region where the Roman Catholic Church’s influence has been waning steadily in recent years.
By the end of his coming trip, the pontiff will have visited every country that borders Argentina, with the exception of Uruguay, plus three additional countries on the continent. He traveled to Brazil in 2013, Bolivia, Paraguay and Ecuador in 2015, Colombia last year and now Chile and Peru during a six-day trip that starts Monday.
Many in Argentina have interpreted the pope’s apparent snub as a decision to avoid contact with President Mauricio Macri. Francis did not crack a smile when he posed for a photo at the Vatican with the center-right politician in February 2016, shortly after Mr. Macri was sworn in.
Francis also had a tense relationship with former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her late husband and predecessor, Néstor Kirchner, while he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, often making thinly veiled criticisms about poverty and corruption. Ms. Kirchner and the pontiff appeared to reconcile after he moved to the Vatican.
But while he may avoid any awkward encounters with leaders in Argentina, the coming trip will still put the pontiff in some uncomfortable situations.
In Santiago, Francis is expected to face demonstrations for keeping Bishop Juan Barros as head of the Diocese of Osorno, 570 miles south of the capital, despite allegations he helped cover up a notorious case of clerical sexual abuse. Francis appointed him in January 2015 even though he was part of the inner circle of the Rev. Fernando Karadima, whom the Vatican found guilty of sexual abuse in 2011.
Francis called “dumb” the lay and religious organizations protesting in Osorno at the time.
“We are not convinced that the pope has really assumed this zero tolerance policy on sexual abuses,” said Juan Carlos Claret, 24, one of the organizers of the demonstrations. “He has showed infinite tolerance. Having all the power to do something, he prefers to remain ambiguous.”
Peru will be no less thorny. Francis will almost certainly be asked to weigh in on President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski’s politically explosive Christmas Eve pardon of former president Alberto Fujimori, which sparked nationwide protests. Besides that, the pope on Wednesday ordered a Vatican takeover of a Peruvian Catholic society, following claims that its founder sexually and physically abused members.
Sex abuse scandals are among the reasons millions of Latin Americans have turned away from the Catholic Church in recent years. In prosperous nations, including Chile and Uruguay, societies have become increasingly secular. In countries in the region troubled by violence, stark inequality and entrenched poverty like Brazil, evangelical denominations have cut deeply into the historical base of the Catholic Church.
The number of Chileans who described themselves as Catholic dropped from 74 percent in 1995 to 45 percent last year, according to a poll by Latinobarómetro.
The decline of Catholicism in Argentina, from 87 percent in 1995 to 65 percent last year, has also been significant, according to the Latinobarómetro poll.
Yet, the church got a lift across the region with Francis’ ascension, which was celebrated with the type of joy that is sparked by a soccer World Cup victory.
In Argentina, local church authorities acknowledge that people are frustrated that Francis has not come home, but they urge patience. Jorge Oesterheld, the spokesman for Argentina’s bishops’ conference, told a local radio station recently that the pope is “looking for the moment” to return home.
“It’s a little painful for him to pass over us and land on the other side,” Mr. Oesterheld said.
Any return is unlikely to come soon. In 2016, Francis released an 11-minute video to the Argentine people explaining he would not return home in 2017. “The world is bigger than Argentina,” he said. The Vatican confirmed there would not be a trip to Argentina this year, either.
“I really want the pope to come to Argentina, but I agree this is not the right time,” said Lautaro Bazán, 20, who was set to board the same bus to Chile as Ms. Cartes. “There is too much social tension,” he added, referring to violent protests last month after Congress overhauled pension and welfare programs.
Yolanda Sotoa, 50, who will be among those traveling to Chile as part of a delegation of social organizations, said she does not begrudge the pope’s decision to stay away.
“The pope is someone who has always fought for the poorest members of society,” said Ms. Sotoa, who recycles cardboard for a living, as she stood in a workshop in the Parque Patricios neighborhood of Buenos Aires, surrounded by goods made almost entirely from material recovered from trash. “He’s the polar opposite of our president, who represents high society.”
Other Argentines, however, are indignant.
“I really don’t like that he has not returned,” said Luisa Fernández, 73, as she left Francis’ childhood church, less than half a mile from his first home, after Mass. “It reflects badly on the country.” There is no question, Ms. Fernández added, that Francis does not come home for “ideological” reasons and as a “protest” to the president.
The government has been pushing back against the political interpretations of the pope’s actions.
“We need to remove some of the drama from the issue,” said Alfredo Miguel Abriani, a senior foreign ministry official who oversees religious affairs. “The pope is a prudent and wise man and will know when will be the best time to travel to Argentina. We must be patient.”
Juan Grabois, who leads the Movement of Excluded Workers and organized a 700-person committee of social organizations to see the pope in Chile, said that the obsession with when the pontiff will visit Argentina is part of the “navel-gazing attitudes” common in Argentina.
“He was in Argentina for 76 years,” added Mr. Grabois. “He now has to prioritize the rest of the world.”