Priests who minister to poor, other Argentines urge pope to visit his homeland

BUENOS AIRES (OSV News) -- Almost immediately after Pope Francis was elected in March 2013, Argentines expected him to visit. A flood of young Argentines traveled to neighboring Brazil that July for World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro -- the new pope's first foreign trip.

Pope Francis visited other nearby countries including Paraguay and Bolivia in 2015 and even flew over Argentina in 2018 for his trip to Chile.

But 10 years after becoming pontiff, the pope still hasn't visited his native country. Some Catholics in Argentina believe a visit is long overdue and some have started a campaign to convince the pope to return and reunite with Argentines, even amid domestic political divisions and economic difficulties.

"He has to come because the people, the community want to gather with the pope, regardless of who governs," said Father José María di Paola, known as "Padre Pepe," a prominent "cura villero" -- as the priests who live and work in the shantytowns of Buenos Aires are known.

"As Argentines, we need for the pope to be among us," said María Elena Acosta, a member of the national Caritas chapter. "It's time to sit together and sip mate and tell him all about this path we're taking," she said, mentioning the pope's favorite traditional Argentine tea beverage.

Familia Grande Hogar de Cristo, a ministry for supporting addiction recovery founded by the curas villeros and supported by the then-Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires -- who washed the feet of the ministry's participants -- has launched a campaign to urge the pope to visit Argentina, saying it would promote unity at a time of deep divisions.

A Nov. 10 Mass celebrated by the curas villeros in a Buenos Aires shantytown is meant to urge that a papal visit happen, with the call: "Come, Francis, your community awaits."

"His words, his gestures, his presence will do us good because we desire a country full of love and social justice," Mass organizers said in a statement. "Just as he taught us, the challenge is to receive life as it comes with an eye toward those on the side of the road."

The pope's absence has long confounded Argentines, who expressed pride after the election of a spiritual leader for the Catholic Church who arrived from "the end of the world," in his own words.

But it also reflects the pope's somewhat ambiguous status in Argentina. It's the product, according to priests, of the deep divisions in the country. Argentines often speak of a "grieta" or "crack" splitting society -- with politicians and partisans often pulling Pope Francis into political spats or portraying him as a supporter or opponent.

"We pulled him into the 'grieta' and we all lost," Father Marcelo De Benedictis, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Mendoza, told OSV News. "The pope lost, and we also lost because we're missing out on teachings from Bergoglio, from the bishop of Rome, teachings which would do us a lot of good as a society and as a church, too."

Tensions are running high in Argentina, which holds runoff elections Nov. 19. Sergio Massa of the ruling Peronist coalition won the most votes in the first round but faces libertarian challenger Javier Milei -- who has proposed slashing the state and swapping the Argentine peso for the U.S. dollar in a country with triple-digit inflation.

Milei has verbally assailed Pope Francis as a "filthy leftist" and a "malignant presence on this earth." A prominent supporter urged severing relations with the Vatican at Milei's closing rally -- a call the candidate rejected.

Pope Francis has said he would like to visit Argentina in 2024. But he also said in an interview with Buenos Aires newspaper La Nación, "Don't link me to Argentine politics, please."

Priests and political analysts speculate that the pope's preference to avoid politics explains his absence from Argentina.

"One thing is Bergoglio and the other is Francis," Fortunato Mallimaci, an Argentine sociologist who studies religion, told OSV News. He explained that many Argentines continue seeing Pope Francis as Archbishop Bergoglio rather than the leader of the universal church.

But some Catholics believe the divisions are precisely a reason for Pope Francis to visit.

"A visit from the pope always does good," Father Lorenzo De Vedia, known as "Toto," a cura villero in Buenos Aires, told OSV News. He recalled St. John Paul II visiting Argentina at difficult times in 1982 -- with the pope calling for an end to the Falklands War over the British-controlled islands Argentina considers an integral part of its territory and refers to as the "Islas Malvinas" -- and later in 1987.

"I believe that the pope's visit would do a lot of good for our country due to the crisis that is being experienced and because of the differences that exist in the different sectors of Argentines," Father De Vedia said.

Pope Francis's preference to not visit Argentina draws comparison with St. John Paul, who returned to his native Poland shortly after his 1978 election. Father De Vedia recalled the "excitement" of that visit "not only in Poland, but the entire world."

- - - David Agren writes for OSV News from Mexico City. He currently reports from Buenos Aires.