BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Pope Francis’ homeland of Argentina is not on the itinerary for his South American tour in July.
The pontiff hasn’t been back since he became pope more than two years ago, and the Vatican says he doesn’t want to influence October’s presidential election by visiting now. Francis has complained in recent months that he has felt “used” by Argentine politicians who take their picture with him in Rome.
Instead, the pontiff will tour Ecuador and two countries that border Argentina: Bolivia and Paraguay.
Although he will stay away, Francis nevertheless intensely follows what happens where he was born and spent most of his life before becoming world leader of the Roman Catholic Church, according to local journalists who have covered him for years, friends in the country and Vatican officials.
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“This is a pope who is very interested in politics and has considerable political sensibility,” said Mariano De Vedia, political editor for the Argentine newspaper La Nacion and author of “In the Name of the Father,” a book that examines Francis’ rocky relationship with President Cristina Fernandez and her predecessor and late husband, Nestor Kirchner.
Much of what Francis says and does has an impact in Argentina, a majority Catholic nation of 41 million people where the church wields great influence.
He has promised to open church files from Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship — a potential Pandora’s box that could spark more lawsuits and arrests related to the estimated 30,000 people killed or disappeared during the “dirty war.”
Francis made headlines early this year by lamenting that a growing drug trade in Argentina could lead to a “Mexicanization” of the country. Many interpreted those comments as a scathing critique of Fernandez and her party, which has held power since 2003.
Earlier this month, he received Fernandez at the Vatican for the fourth time, drawing the ire of some opposition leaders.
“Don’t disappointment me, Francisco!” Elisa Carrio, an opposition congresswoman and aspiring presidential contender, posted to her Facebook page during his last meeting with Fernandez. “Make good on your promise not to get involved in politics.”
The Vatican defended the meeting by saying that Fernandez, constitutionally barred from running for a third term, was not a candidate. Guillermo Karcher, the Vatican’s protocol chief and a fellow Argentine, told local media that the nearly two-hour meeting focused on Argentina but did not touch on the August primaries leading up to the October general vote.
“The pope follows very closely and with much affection” what happens in his homeland, Karcher told Argentine radio station MDZ, adding that he and Fernandez “would certainly have talked about Argentina.”
While many of Fernandez’s social welfare policies no doubt resonate with Francis, he had a frosty relationship with her when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires. The biggest fights were over social issues, such as a 2010 law that recognized civil unions of gay couples, and moves to expand sex education in schools. As a result, many interpret the pope’s meetings with Fernandez as attempts to influence her policies.
Many Argentines are disappointed that he won’t be visiting.
“He’s abandoned Argentina” since becoming pope, Norma Roch, 66, said after praying at Santa Catalina de Siena, a downtown Buenos Aires church where Francis would sometimes celebrate Mass when he was still Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio. “He needs to come home and spend some time with us.”
But others say they understand.
“He is making the right decision,” said Jorge Corna, 82, cutting Roch off. “The pope isn’t stupid. Politicians here would try to use him.”
Francis clearly embraces his Argentine identity. He’s a self-proclaimed fan of the country’s San Lorenzo soccer team as well as its traditional tango dancing and milonga music. After being elected pope, one of the first things he asked to be sent from the Buenos Aires rectory was his agenda with cellphone numbers of bishops and priests in the diocese, said De Vedia. He remains in frequent communication with Argentines from all walks of life.
Gustavo Vera, a Buenos Aires community organizer, periodically hears from the pope, and received a letter expressing his condolences when a sweatshop fire killed two boys in April.
“What occurred caused me much pain,” wrote Francis. “I’m with you all and I ask for the Lord’s help so that these kinds of things don’t keep happening.”
Massimo Faggioli, a Rome-based church historian, said Francis’ relationship with his homeland differs from those the previous two popes had with theirs. John Paul II often talked about his native Poland, but unlike Francis visited his homeland soon after becoming pope. Benedict XVI rarely mentioned his native Germany, where he hadn’t lived for nearly three decades.
“Not being European gives Francis more freedom” to decide how to relate to home, said Faggioli. “In not visiting now, he sends a message that he is pope for everybody and that Argentines should not feel any special rights.”
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