When St. John Paul II set foot in Poland for the first time as the Successor of Peter, he made history on many fronts. The fact that the visit led to the creation of the Solidarity trade union, which played a key role in the collapse of Communism, is merely the best-known and most celebrated.
John Paul also created the expectation of a visit by a non-Italian pope to his country of origin which to this day looms over Pope Francis, the first pope from the global south — who, seven years after his election and counting, has yet to go home.
Buzz about a possible papal visit to Argentina in 2020 is stronger than ever today, after the entire bishops’ conference came to Rome this year for their ad limina visits, in three groups, and every time they issued an invitation and the pope replied with some version of “soon.”
The phrase “he’ll come when the time is right” has become a mantra for Argentine Catholics who want to see Francis come back home, though disappointment among those waiting for him continues to grow.
Last week brought a reminder of one of the reasons Francis may be reluctant to make a homecoming — the risk of political manipulation of his words and deeds.
A group of curas villeros (“priests of the slums”) called on Argentine politicians to stop pretending to be spokespersons for the pope, and asked the local media to stop spinning Francis’s words and deciding who’s close to the pope and who isn’t.
Most of those slum priests work in Buenos Aires, living in “shantytowns of misery” where an estimated 10 percent of the city’s population lives.
Technically known as “emergency villas,” the term is no longer accurate as many of the people living in one of Buenos Aires’s 14 officially recognized slums, or one of its more than 20 smaller irregular settlements, spend decades, if not their whole lives, in these neighborhoods. They continue to grow on par with the number of impoverished Argentines, and, as a result of decades-long economic instability, their ranks are swelling.
A majority of the slum priests were appointed by then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, today Pope Francis.
In a statement they released Friday, ahead of June 29, the solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, also known as the “day of the pope,” they criticized “communicators and self-proclaimed spokespersons” who pretend to involve Francis in the country’s upcoming national elections, set to take place in October.
The priests requested that these personalities stop trying “to manipulate the figure of Pope Francis for local impact on the current political landscape.”
The document is titled “Together with Pope Francis, We Announce the Gospel, light for the poor.” Signatories include Bishop Gustavo Carrara, auxiliary of Buenos Aires, designated by Francis in 2017.
The priests warned that by pretending to interpret the pope’s thoughts and words, spinning them for their own benefit, politicians and media outlets “confuse” those who actually care what the pope thinks.
Although there are a handful of candidates for the presidency, in many ways the 2020 race already has been reduced to a choice between re-electing Mauricio Macri, a center-right politician aligned with the United States and the European Union, or going back to Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, a center-left politician aligned with Venezuela and Cuba.
While voting is compulsory, polls show that some 40 percent of Argentines aren’t planning to vote for either major candidate.
Among the “third position” alternatives is Roberto Lavagna, former minister of economy from 2002-2005 and a man who played a key role in the country’s stabilization after the crisis of 2001, which led Argentina to have five presidents in a week.
Speaking with the online publication Infobae last week, Lavagna described the pope as an “international character of first level.”
“He’s a central character in the world and, as Argentines, we should be glad that it’s an Argentine” leading the Church at a time when the institution “seemed at the brink of a crisis.”
Lavagna said “some pretend to use [Francis] in one sense or the other,” and “I believe that he shouldn’t let others use him, because he’s above that.”
He also recalled Bergoglio’s role in the 2001 crisis.
“The Church, through Caritas and Dialogo Argentino [Argentine Dialogue] played a key role, together with other religions, to try to create a government of national unity, which ended up taking the country out of the hole it was in,” Lavagna said.
According to the slum priests, a utilitarian reading of the pope’s words further divides Argentines, particularly those who, at a grassroots level, may stand on one side or the other between Macri and Kirchner, but are all with the pope.
“We see a constant distortion of the papal message used at the convenience and discretion of what each one needs to support at any given time,” the priests wrote. “We also know that the people of God want, listen and always adhere to the pope and his message, feeling protected by him.”
The statement also refers to a series of leaked phone calls about the pope, but which don’t actually include him, in which people close to Kirchner claim to have the power to make the pope interfere in Argentine politics.
“The true thought and teachings of the Holy Father do not come from some alleged investigation of secrets or spokespersons,” the slum priests argued. “You can find it easily in his writings, his preaching, speeches and his activity.”
According to the group of 37 priests, the pope was “prudent” not to go to Argentina in these times when the tendency is to make everyone a rival and to “polarize” everything.
“To be amid the poor and the discarded, accompanying the defense of their rights, is not a party ideology but the essence of Jesus’ Gospel, and, as such, of the Church’s social doctrine,” they wrote.