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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina –
When Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina became Pope Francis, much of his home country celebrated as if it had just won a soccer World Cup championship. A decade later, the first Latin American leader of the Catholic Church generates divided opinions and much less fervour.
Francis, who still likes to listen to tango, left Argentina in February 2013 to attend the conclave that elected him as the successor to Benedict XVI on March 13. He never returned.
“It’s clear, there are people who are angry at him,” said Argentine journalist Sergio Rubin, who recently co-wrote a book about Francis, “El Pastor,” with Francesca Ambrogetti. It includes interviews with the Pope.
Rubin and some other analysts agree that the Pope is keeping his home country at arm’s length to avoid being drawn into the political polarization that has divided Argentines over the past two decades.
“Ninety percent of the reason he doesn’t come is because of the divide,” said Rubin, who writes for Argentina’s Clarin newspaper.
Rubin says there are reports from the Holy See’s Secretariat of State that advise Francis not to step foot in his home country because anything he does could “be a reason for conflict.”
Even without coming to Argentina, Francis has found himself at the centre of the constant fighting between those who support the populist policies of Kirchnerism — the centre-left current of Peronism, led by Vice-President and former president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (2007-15) — and those who back centre-right former president Mauricio Macri (2015-19).
In 2016, a photo seemed to show Francis with a blank, almost angry, expression when he met with then-president Macri, which some read as a sign that he wasn’t happy with how he was running Argentina. The photo, which quickly went viral, negatively affected Francis’ popularity in his home country, according to analysts.
Francis is “a controversial figure, especially among the most conservative sectors of Argentina,” political consultant Sergio Berenzstein said.
Berenzstein said those segments of society never “fully understood the change in attitude” of the Pope when in 2013 he took on a decidedly friendly tune toward left-leaning then-president Fernandez. That was a marked contrast from the at-times hostile relationship he had maintained with her government when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires.
The Pope’s relationship with Argentine political leaders has shifted over the years. “He doesn’t speak to some, he still speaks to others,” Berenzstein said.
Berenzstein said the legalization of abortion at the end of 2020 under President Alberto Fernandez was a turning point after which Francis cooled toward 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 lives in the name of the god of money, ” has been read by some in Argentina as an endorsement of Peronism, the movement founded by three-time president Juan Domingo Peron that has social justice as a rallying cry.
Miguel Angel Pichetto, from the Macri-allied opposition coalition, recently said the Pope’s social views “are absurd for Argentina,” claiming the pontiff is “against neoliberalism” and in favour of “schemes that make merit unimportant, that say private property is a secondary right.”
Far-right lawmaker Javier Milei, who is polling well for this year’s presidential contest and who has accused the Pope of promoting communism, recently criticized Francis for saying people must pay taxes to protect the dignity of the poor.
Milei tweeted at the pontiff that he was, “always standing on the side of evil.”
A 2019 national poll on religious beliefs in Argentina displayed the lack of fervour for Francis when only 27% described the Pope as a global leader who denounces injustices. Some 40% said they are indifferent to the pontiff and 27% said he is too involved in politics, according to the poll by the publicly funded CONICET institute.
When Bergoglio was announced as the new pope in 2013, drivers in Buenos Aires honked their horns in celebration and people packed the city’s Cathedral for a celebratory Mass.
Roberto Bacman, director of the Centre for Public Opinion Studies, said Francis’ image has declined from a positive rating of 85% in the early years of his tenure as pope to 72% two years ago.
“I was disappointed,” said Maria de los Angeles Lopez, 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 he could help reconcile us as a society, but on the contrary, he deepened it.”
Those close to Francis said he doesn’t come to Argentina because he has other priorities. “We must understand the Pope’s mission goes beyond the Argentines’ own ego,” his nephew, Jose Bergoglio, said.
Journalist Alicia Barrios, a friend of Francis, said the Pope is particularly worried about Russia’s 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 that I don’t want to go” to Argentina.
It’s also clear Francis keeps tabs on his home country. In an interview this year with the AP, with Alberto Fernandez in power, Francis blamed “bad management, bad policies” for Argentina’s annual inflation rate of almost 100%, and the poverty rate of around 40 percent.
Francis also has contact with priests in impoverished neighbourhoods, including Father Jose “Pepe” Di Paola. Francis “is not distant,” Di Paola said, adding he enjoys “a very good image” in poor neighbourhoods, where he is “beloved.”
Di Paola is among several religious leaders planning an event Saturday to mark the decade of Francis as pope.
This anniversary should “be celebrated with Argentine flags, not political ones, like the World Cup,” Di Paola said, recalling how Argentines united in joy after winning the soccer championship in Qatar last year. “We went out to celebrate, we hugged anyone regardless of their religion, political party or beliefs. Now it must be the same, a celebration with the same spirit.”