ROME – When he was elected as the successor of Peter, Pope Francis was described by people who knew him well as someone who hated traveling. Stories of his aversion to leaving Buenos Aires abounded during the time he served there as the archbishop and cardinal, and intimates predicted he’d be mostly a stay-at-home pope.
Well, that just goes to show how much they really knew. Over eight years, Pope Francis has visited 50 countries, which is a higher average per-year total than the peripatetic St. John Paul II logged visiting 129 nations over almost 27 years.
Beyond the countries he visited for “official” events, such as World Youth Day in Brazil, Poland, and Panama, and the World Meeting of Families in the United States and Ireland, the Argentine pontiff has been bold in his choices: The Central African Republic during a civil war; Myanmar and Bangladesh during the worst of the Rohingya crisis; Chile despite a seemingly endless list of allegations of clerical sexual abuse and cover-up; and, most recently, Iraq, a country no pope had ever visited, despite both St. Pope John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wanting to go, and despite the ongoing reality of a global pandemic.
He told journalists more than once that he wanted to travel to countries and cities no pope had ever visited, and he’s managed to do that on several occasions, including a historic trip to the United Arab Emirates, a first to the Arabian Peninsula by a pontiff.
Yet he has steadfastly avoided what some could argue are “obvious” choices for history’s first Latin American pontiff, and an Argentine to boot.
Topping the list of countries Pope Francis has been repeatedly invited to visit (while either chatting with journalists aboard papal flights, or officially by governments and bishops) are his home country, Argentina, and Spain, once Europe’s most Catholic country but today a hotbed of rapid secularization in the continent.
Both countries make an appearance on the list of nations the pope “almost” visited at least once, and both had major Catholic events to entice him.
Argentina was a big contender in 2020, with several pastoral reasons that would have justified the visit: the 500th anniversary of the first Mass on Argentine soil, along with the pope’s desire to declare Bl. María Antonia de Paz y Figueroa, known as “Mama Antula,” a saint. Sources have long said the second miracle needed has been approved, but there’s been no official confirmation yet.
Even aside from the coronavirus, however, there was never any serious effort to organize a homecoming trip. Pope Francis offered a sort of explanation in 2016, when he sent a video to his countrymen saying he wouldn’t go back in 2017. The tape was meant to quash rumors that a trip was in the works.
“You don’t know how much I would like to see you again,” he said in the video. “And I won’t be able to do it next year either because there are commitments with Asia and Africa … and the world is bigger than Argentina.”
In effect, it was almost a papal appropriation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Evita,” based on the life of Juan Perón’s second wife, with its famous tune, “Don’t cry for me, Argentina!”
When it comes to Spain, there have been plenty of motives for a trip since 2013, including two major anniversaries. Back in 2015, then President Mariano Rajoy did his best to secure a visit for the 500th anniversary of the birth of St. Teresa of Ávila, the first female doctor of the church, yet the request was ignored by the pope.
To explain, he sketched a cryptic response that he has deployed several times since: “Too much division.”
Pope Francis never publicly explained if he means too much division among the bishops, which is a strong possibility, or among Spaniards, with an unstable political situation and the constant looming threat of Catalonia demanding its independence.
In addition, when asked by journalists if he’s planning a visit to Spain, he often says that when it comes to Europe the priority is the “small countries,” which automatically also rule out visits to France, England, and Germany. (He went to Strasbourg in 2014 to address the European Parliament, but he avoided meeting French officials or even visiting the local cathedral).
Alas, the second major anniversary that represents a big “temptation” for Pope Francis to visit Spain, the 500th anniversary of the conversion of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, opens May 20 and will close next July.
The COVID-19 pandemic makes a visit this year virtually impossible, but he has expressed hope for a possible visit in 2022.
Public explanations aside, both countries have a common denominator that may make the pontiff wary of a visit: rampant criticism of the pope from all corners, both for religious and political reasons.
In Argentina and in Spain, at least judging by social media and political blather, Pope Francis is blamed for virtually everything. His name is routinely linked to petty political arguments in secular news outlets, and blogs by traditionalist Catholics accuse him of being an out-and-out heretic.
In both cases, critics usually rely not on anything the pope actually said or did, but a sound-bite caricature based on cherry-picking, a fine art perfected both by friends and foes in these two nations, who’ve made a sport of spinning his words around like a carousel.
Out of need, every pope develops a thick skin when it comes to criticism, and Pope Francis received a fair share before, during and after several of his trips. The question thus becomes: Is a visit worth it at a pastoral, interreligious, or even political level?
Many questioned the wisdom of his trip to Iraq in March despite the security threats and the growing number of coronavirus cases, but he saw the visit as an important step in securing the survival of Christianity in the Middle East.
What could be gained from a papal visit to Argentina and Spain, beyond a hug to his lone surviving sibling, his sister Maria Elena, whom he hasn’t seen since coming to Rome in 2013, and honoring the saint who inspired his vocation to the priesthood?
That, probably, is the question that would need to be answered convincingly for Pope Francis before either of these two seemingly “obvious” trips could also become plausible.