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Argentina’s initial fervor for Pope Francis has faded


Buenos Aires, Argentina — When Argentina’s Jorge Bergoglio became Pope Francis, much of his home country celebrated as if he had just won a soccer World Cup. A decade later, the first Latin American leader of the Catholic Church sparks mixed opinions and far less fervor.

Francis, who still enjoys listening to tango, left Argentina in February 2013 to attend the conclave that elected him as successor to Benedict XVI on March 13. He never came back.

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

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

“Ninety percent of the reasons why he doesn’t come is because of the fracture,” said Rubin, who writes for Argentine newspaper Clarín.

Rubin says there are reports from the Holy See’s Secretary of State advising Francis not to set foot in his home country because anything he does could ‘be cause for conflict’ .

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

In 2016, a photo appeared to show Francis with a blank, almost angry expression when he met then-President Macri, which some read as a sign he was unhappy with the way he ruled Argentina. The photo, which quickly went viral, had a negative impact on Francis’ popularity in his home country, analysts say.

Francis is “a controversial figure, especially among Argentina’s more conservative sectors”, said political consultant Sergio Berenzstein.

Berenzstein said these segments of society never “fully understood the change in attitude” of the pope when in 2013 he struck a decidedly friendly tone toward then-leftist President Fernández. It was a marked contrast to the sometimes hostile relationship he had with his government when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires.

The pope’s relationship with Argentina’s political leaders has changed over the years. “He doesn’t talk to some, he always talks to others,” Berenzstein said.

Berenzstein said the late 2020 legalization of abortion under President Alberto Fernández was a turning point after which Francis grew cold towards the leftist president, the newest Peronist leader.

The pope’s message against the accumulation of wealth that leaves so much behind, including criticism of an “economic system that continues to throw away lives 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 that has social justice as its rallying cry.

Miguel Angel Pichetto, from the opposition coalition allied with Macri, recently said that the pope’s social views “are absurd for Argentina”, saying the pontiff is “against neoliberalism” and in favor of “plans that make merit without importance, who say that private property is a secondary right”.

Far-right lawmaker Javier Milei, who is voting well for this year’s presidential race and who has accused the pope of promoting communism, recently criticized Francis for saying people should pay taxes to protect the dignity of the poor .

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

A 2019 national poll of religious beliefs in Argentina showed Francis’ lack of fervor as only 27% described the pope as a world leader who speaks out against injustice. Some 40% said they were indifferent to the pontiff and 27% said he was too involved in politics, according to the poll by state-funded institute CONICET.

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 Center for Public Opinion Studies, said Francis’ image had gone from an 85% positive rating in the early years of his term as pope to 72% two years ago.

“I was disappointed,” said María de los Ángeles López, a practicing Catholic who believed an Argentinian 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 instead he deepened it.

Francis’ relatives said he was not coming to Argentina because he had other priorities. “We must understand that the Pope’s mission goes beyond the ego of Argentines,” said his nephew, José Bergoglio.

Journalist Alicia Barrios, a friend of Francis, said the pope was 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 that Francis is keeping tabs on his home country. In an interview this year with the AP, with Alberto Fernández in power, Francis blamed “mismanagement, bad policies” for Argentina’s nearly 100% annual inflation rate and poverty rate by about 40%.

Francis also has contact with priests from underprivileged neighborhoods, including Father José “Pepe” Di Paola. François “is not distant”, said Di Paola, adding that he enjoys a “very good image” in poor neighborhoods, 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 Argentine flags, not political flags, like the World Cup”, said Di Paola, recalling how Argentines united in joy after winning the football championship in Qatar last year. last. “We went out to celebrate, we hugged anyone regardless of religion, political party or beliefs. Now it must be the same, a party with the same spirit.

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