Argentina’s initial passion for Pope Francis has evaporated

When Jorge Bergoglio from Argentina became Pope Francis, large parts of his home country celebrated as if it had just won a soccer World Cup. A decade later, the first Latin American leader of the Catholic Church makes for divided opinion and much less zeal.

Francis, who still enjoys listening to the tango, left Argentina in February 2013 to attend the March 13 conclave that nominated him to succeed Benedict XVI. chose. He never returned.

“It’s clear that there are people who are angry with him,” said Argentine journalist Sergio Rubin, who recently co-wrote a book about Francis with Francesca Ambrogetti, El Pastor. It contains interviews with the Pope.

Rubin and some other analysts agree that the pope is keeping his home country at a distance to avoid being drawn into the political polarization that has divided Argentina for the past two decades.

“Ninety percent of the reasons he doesn’t come is because of division,” said Rubin, writing for Argentina’s Clarín newspaper.

Rubin says there are reports from the Holy See’s Secretariat of State advising Francis not to set foot in his homeland as anything he does “could be a cause of conflict.”

Even without coming to Argentina, Francis has found himself at the center of the ongoing struggles between those who support the populist policies of Kirchnerism – the centre-left current of Peronism led by Vice President and former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007- 2015). ) – and those supporting former centre-right President Mauricio Macri (2015-2019).

In 2016, a photo appeared to show Francis with a blank, almost angry expression as he met with then-President Macri, which some interpreted as a sign that he was unhappy with his way of running Argentina. The photo, which quickly went viral, negatively impacted Francis’s popularity in his home country, according to analysts.

Francis is “a controversial figure, particularly among Argentina’s most conservative sectors,” said political adviser Sergio Berenzstein.

Berenzstein said these sections of society never “fully understood” the pope’s “change in attitude” when he took a decidedly friendly stance towards the left-leaning then-President Fernández in 2013. This was in marked contrast to the at times hostile relations he had maintained with their government as Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

The Pope’s relationship with Argentine politicians has changed over the years. “He doesn’t talk to some, he still talks to others,” Berenzstein said.

Berenzstein said the legalization of abortion in late 2020 under President Alberto Fernández was a turning point, after which Francis cooled with the left-leaning president, the most recent Peronist leader.

The pope’s message against the accumulation of wealth that leaves many behind, including criticism of an “economic system that continues to discard life in the name of the god of money,” was read by some in Argentina as an endorsement of Peronism, the movement founded by three-time President Juan Domingo Perón, who has social justice as his watchword.

Miguel Angel Pichetto of the Macri-allied opposition coalition recently said the pope’s social views were “absurd for Argentina”. secondary right.”

Far-right lawmaker Javier Milei, who is doing well in this year’s presidential election and has accused the pope of promoting communism, recently slammed Francis for saying people must pay taxes to protect the dignity of the poor.

Milei tweeted the pope that he was “always on the side of evil.”

A 2019 national poll of religious beliefs in Argentina showed the lack of fervor for Francis, when just 27% described the pope as a global leader who denounces injustices. According to the poll by the publicly funded CONICET institute, about 40% said they were indifferent to the Pope and 27% said he was too involved in politics.

When Bergoglio was named the new pope in 2013, drivers in Buenos Aires honked their horns in celebration and people packed the city’s cathedral for a solemn mass.

Roberto Bacman, director of the Center for Public Opinion Research, said Pope Francis’ image has fallen from an 85% positive rating in the early years of his pontificate to 72% two years ago.

“I was disappointed,” said María de los Ángeles López, a practicing Catholic who believed an Argentine pope would have a positive impact on the country. “There is more poverty, more crime and the division is worse than ever. I thought it could help reconcile us as a society, but on the contrary it deepened it.”

Those close to Francis said he is not coming to Argentina because he has other priorities. “We have to understand that the Pope’s mission goes beyond Argentines’ own ego,” said his nephew José Bergoglio.

Journalist Alicia Barrios, a friend of Francis, said the pope was particularly concerned about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “You can imagine he doesn’t have much time for Argentina,” Barrios said. “There are countries that need him more.”

In El Pastor, the Pope said, “It’s unfair to say I don’t want to go to Argentina.”

It’s also clear that Francis has his home country in mind. In an interview with the AP earlier this year, when Alberto Fernández was in power, Francis blamed “bad management, bad policies” for Argentina’s annual inflation rate of nearly 100 percent and poverty rate of about 40 percent.

Francis also has contact with priests in impoverished neighborhoods, including Father José “Pepe” Di Paola. Francis “is not aloof,” Di Paola said, adding he enjoys “a very good image” in slums where he is “loved.”

Di Paola is among several religious leaders planning an event on Saturday to mark Francis’ decade as pope.

This anniversary should be “celebrated with Argentinian flags, not political ones like the World Cup,” said Di Paola, recalling how Argentines were united in joy after winning the soccer championship in Qatar last year. “We went out to celebrate, we hugged everyone regardless of their religion, political party or belief. Now it has to be the same, a celebration with the same spirit.” Argentina’s initial passion for Pope Francis has evaporated

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