Why Has Pope Francis Never Visited His Homeland?

COMMENTARY: There are many reasons, but his visiting Argentina would offer the Holy Father a chance to articulate a positive vision for Argentina’s political and economic future.

Faithful wave flags of Argentina as Pope Francis tours St. Peter's Square during his weekly general audience, at the Vatican, Wednesday, June 27, 2018.
Faithful wave flags of Argentina as Pope Francis tours St. Peter's Square during his weekly general audience, at the Vatican, Wednesday, June 27, 2018. (photo: Alessandra Tarantino / AP)

Pope Francis has demonstrated real physical courage on his papal visits. Next year he will have something of a new challenge when visiting his homeland, where a moral and political confrontation awaits him. Courage will be needed for a visit that is likely, but not yet scheduled.

The inauguration of Argentina’s new president on Sunday has set the stage for something unusual in this pontificate, a visit to a hostile political environment. Javier Milei, who won a landslide victory last month, insulted the Holy Father liberally during his campaign, calling him an “imbecile” and a “filthy leftist” who “has an affinity for murderous communists.” That Milei himself is Catholic makes his disrespect for the Holy Father all the more offensive, not merely a matter of bad manners.

Early in his pontificate, the Holy Father showed that he was not afraid to go where his physical safety might be threatened. Pope Francis braved a near-typhoon to offer Mass in Tacloban City, Philippines, in January 2015. Later that year, he visited a mosque in Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic, that was under siege from thousands of Christian militiamen.

Praise at the Peripheries

For the most part, though, Pope Francis has not faced confrontations on his visits. His preference for visiting countries that have not had papal visits before has meant that he is usually welcomed enthusiastically just for coming. Those visits have been a powerful witness to the catholicity of the Church, and how even the little flocks are precious to the Church.

His decision not to visit the leading countries of Europe has meant avoiding confrontations with hostile secularism. So determined is Pope Francis not to visit Europe’s center that he has insisted that even his two brief visits to France — Strasbourg and Marseille — were not really visits to France, but to the European Parliament and to a meeting on refugees.

The preference for “peripheries” has meant that Pope Francis had not yet had to face head on the hostility that, for example, Pope Benedict XVI faced ahead of this 2010 visit to Britain, or even his 2012 visit to Germany, where a good portion of the Bundestag boycotted his address.

While St. John Paul II is remembered for his triumphant 1979 visit to his homeland, in 1991 the reception was cool as he spoke about the need for moral integrity in a newly-free Poland. Afterwards, John Paul lamented that such a message made him “persona non grata” — an exaggeration, but nevertheless an indication that it was not always smooth at home.

When Pope Francis has gone to the centers of power, it has been exceptionally friendly. House Speaker John Boehner wept openly with joy at the U.S. Capitol for the Holy Father’s visit, and then resigned the next day, considering the visit the crowning achievement of his speakership.

The canceled trip to Dubai earlier this month would have garnered the Pope a rapturous welcome, as he would have enthusiastically endorsed the priorities of the international climate class. Vigorous agreement produces friendly visits.

Friendly Latin America

The exception to the peripheries approach has been Latin America, where Pope Francis has visited many of the principal countries — save for Argentina. Yet there too he has avoided direct confrontations. He has visited Marxist countries who are favorable to him, like Cuba and Bolivia, but has not challenged in person regimes which are hostile to the Church, such as Venezuela or Nicaragua.

There have been no equivalents of John Paul’s direct confrontation with the first Ortega regime in Managua in 1983, where Sandinista thugs disrupted the papal Mass. There have been no moments like the 1987 youth meeting with a visibly animated, even angry, John Paul in Chile during the Pinochet regime.

Pope Francis has had generally placid visits; no examples like John Paul shaking with rage against the mafia in Sicily in May 1993, or denouncing the indifference of the rich countries in Edmonton in 1984: “The poor south will judge the rich north!”

The one exception for Pope Francis was his January 2018 visit to Chile in the wake of serious questions of his handling of sexual abuse cases. It was the most catastrophic papal visit in history. The damage to the Church’s reputation was so severe that an emergency summit was held later in Rome and the entire Chilean episcopate offered their resignations in order to shore up the Holy Father’s credibility.

After that fiasco, Pope Francis never returned to Latin America, save for the World Youth Day in Panama 2019, which had already been announced. After Chile 2018, it was a worry that a visit to Argentina may not be a good thing for the local Church. What if a return home turned out not like John Paul in Poland 1979 or Benedict in Germany 2005, but was a repeat of the Chilean experience? What if a papal visit to Argentina would be a blow to Catholic life?

Prism of Politics?

Since his election in 2013 the refusal to visit Argentina has been perplexing. The Holy Father has said that a visit was planned for 2017, but canceled due to elections, as popes generally avoid visiting countries in election years. (Benedict XVI did visit the United States in 2008, but President George W. Bush was not standing for election.)

It is implausible that the electoral calendar would frustrate a papal visit for 10 years. Many commentators have speculated that Pope Francis has been reluctant to visit for fear that various political factions would attempt to exploit his visit for their own purposes. That too is implausible. The Pope has visited countries where he is broadly sympathetic to the governing incumbent, like Bolivia, and where he is not, like Hungary. It would also be strange to allow political questions to determine an apostolic visit.

It’s more plausible that Argentina poses an unusual difficulty for a native-born pope. A pope in his homeland would be expected to provide a vision for his country’s development and mission, as John Paul did for Poland and Benedict for Germany. That is difficult in Argentina, which has been so badly governed for so long.

It is the only formerly rich country to become poor absent war or natural disaster. When in Buenos Aires, Pope Francis was known as the bishop of the slums. That is only possible because Argentina has slums. Canada does not, but when the Bergoglio family emigrated from Italy to Argentina, Canada was not as wealthy as Argentina. What could Pope Francis say in Argentina without castigating the legacy of Peronism that has pauperized his own people? That would make for an awkward visit.

The truth is simply not known about why Pope Francis has thus refused to visit Argentina, despite repeated invitations to do so. But he did say earlier this year that he planned to visit in 2024, that his visit did not depend upon who was elected president.

President Milei Invites the Pope

Now Argentina has a non-Peronist president, fruit of the populist phenomenon which Pope Francis has lamented elsewhere. In his inaugural address on Sunday, Milei said bluntly that “there is no money” and that “shock” therapy will be needed to restrain inflation, which is running as high as 130%. Already his government has announced plans to devalue the peso and cut subsidies. Argentina already has a poverty rate of almost 40%; life will become tougher under economic reforms in the immediate future.

Despite campaigning aggressively against Holy Father, Milei has been treated graciously. Pope Francis called to congratulate him, and Milei stepped back from his offensive rhetoric. In a recent interview, the Holy Father even made allowances for Milei’s insults, noting that “in the electoral campaign things are said … but then fade away by themselves.” Milei, for his part, invited Pope Francis to visit Argentina and promised to receive him with “full honors.”

Thus the stage is set. If Pope Francis were not to visit in 2024, it would seem that he was dissuaded by the choice made by the same ordinary people which he regularly extols. It would expose him to the charge that he was avoiding a difficult and delicate trip. The Holy Father may be preparing the ground for not going though, noting in that same interview, that because of his age and health, “all trips are now being reconsidered.”

On the positive side, visiting Argentina now would offer the Holy Father a chance to articulate a positive vision for Argentina’s political and economic future. Peronism has been failing for decades. Populism has produced Milei, sometimes styled as an “anarcho-capitalist.” Does the papacy have alternative principles to offer?

It will be one of the most important Catholic stories of the year ahead.

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