Catholic faithfuls pray during a mass at the Basilica San Jose de Flores, where Pope Francis used to attend in his childhood, in Buenos Aires, Argentina March 6, 2023. REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian
By Lucila Sigal
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) – In the Buenos Aires shanty town area of Villa 21-24, Justina Ayala, 72, remembers the day Pope Francis left Argentina for the Vatican 10 years ago. He has not been back to his homeland – struggling with debt, economic crisis and poverty – since.
“We pray a lot that one day he will come back and hug us, since it is far away and I, for one, will not be able to go there,” Ayala said near her local parish where she once met the pope when he was Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio.
“When he went he told us ‘don’t worry, I’m going to come back right away’,” she said.
Francis, the first Latin American leader of the Roman Catholic Church, marks 10 years as pope on March 13, during which time he has never returned to his native Argentina, despite having visited the region seven times.
Some contend that the 86-year-old pope, who now has mobility issues relating to his knee, is conscious of the pressures he would face in Argentina, which is divided politically, battling 99% inflation and near 40% poverty.
“I think he misses Argentina and it hurt him at the same time,” said Guillermo Marcó, a spokesman for then-Cardinal Bergoglio for nine years who maintains a close relationship with him. “He knows if he comes here they will tear him to pieces.”
Marcó said Francis remained a strong figure, but the demands of his home country were severe, with politicians on all sides likely to try to exploit any visit.
“Who does he see, who doesn’t he see, who does he receive? … Everything is going to be a problem. And I don’t know if he is ready to withstand such pressure,” he said, adding the pope had always been a critic of those in power.
Rogelio Pfirter, former ambassador to the Vatican who was a student of Bergoglio when he taught at a Jesuit school in Santa Fe, said the pope had more pressing global issues, while Argentina’s tense politics was also a deterrent.
“Argentina’s reality, with all its rough edges, with its eccentricity and its obsession with interpreting everything politically, perhaps does not contribute to creating the right atmosphere for a pastoral visit,” he said.
Some in Argentina claim Pope Francis as a Peronist, part of the powerful political movement forged by Juan Domingo Perón in the 1940s based on social justice values. The current Peronist ruling coalition is behind in opinion polls ahead of a general election late this year.
“His way of behaving has a lot to do with Peronist doctrine,” said Lorenzo ‘Toto’ de Vedia, a priest in the Virgen de los Milagros de Caacupé Parish in the 21-24 quarter.
Bergoglio, the son of Italian immigrants, lived modestly when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, traveled by public transport and kept a low profile when he visited the poor in shanty towns in the city, where many still remember him.
Many, though, fear both sides of the political aisle – the Peronists and the resurgent conservative opposition – would try to use a visit from the pope for their own political gain, stirring up an already fractious election race.
Tensions boiled over in September last year when a man tried unsuccessfully to shoot the powerful but divisive Vice President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner at point-blank range. President Alberto Fernandez has also lashed out at the judiciary and tried to impeach members of the Supreme Court.
Bergoglio had at times a rocky relationship with Fernandez de Kirchner, a former two-term president from 2007-2015. She accused him of taking sides politically and once avoided him by shunning a traditional Mass in Buenos Aires.
“We shouldn’t rule out the possibility that (the pope) is concerned his presence will sharpen the political divide,” De Vedia said.
De Vedia added however that a papal visit would “do a lot of good” for the hard-hit voters in the country. Bergoglio, he pointed out, had gained the nickname “Papa villero” – Pope of the villas – due to his closeness with the people.
“They felt taken into account, represented. They identify with him because somehow one of ours got there,” he said.