Pope Francis is about to make one of the most difficult foreign trips of his pontificate. It is not to a war-torn African country or an Asian nation where Catholics are an extreme minority. No, it is to a place where 59 per cent of the population is Catholic, there is no language barrier, and the customs and culture are familiar to Francis.
Why should a trip to Chile, which neighbours the Pope’s homeland of Argentina, pose such problems? Two reasons: the government and the Church.
Outgoing Chilean president Michelle Bachelet has often clashed with Catholics, especially over the decriminalisation of abortion. Her government reportedly asked the hierarchy to persuade Pope Francis not to visit. The bishops were shocked as they had already invited him, believing that the state supported the trip. Officials were apparently afraid that Francis would highlight the “Bolivian issue”: the dispute over whether Chile should allow Bolivia sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean. Some Chilean politicians have accused the Pope of favouring Bolivia – a perception eagerly promoted by Bolivian president Evo Morales. The Pope, of course, has remained neutral.
Last month Bachelet suffered defeat at the polls when Chileans elected billionaire conservative Sebastián Piñera as the country’s next president. Although Bachelet didn’t run against Piñera, the result was seen as a referendum on her policies.
When Francis arrives in Santiago on Monday, he will be welcomed by a grudgingly departing government amid a row over the cost of the trip (estimated by the Santiago Times at 11 billion pesos, or £13 million, with 60 per cent borne by the state and the remainder by the Church). According to a poll, only 36 per cent of Chileans have a favourable view of the visit. That may have something to do with recent scandals in the local Church. In 2011, the Vatican ordered Fr Fernando Karadima, a prominent society priest, to retreat to a “life of prayer and penitence” following claims of sexual abuse. In 2015, Pope Francis named Bishop Juan Barros, who had worked with Fr Karadima for 30 years, to the southern Chilean see of Osorno. The appointment caused uproar locally and then internationally after Francis was recorded calling those who demonstrated against the bishop “dumb”.
By all accounts, the Chilean Church is highly clericalist and therefore at odds with Francis’s vision. The country’s three cardinals – Ricardo Ezzati of Santiago, Javier Errázuriz Ossa and Jorge Medina – are regularly mauled by the press. When the Pope meets the Chilean bishops on the second day of his trip, he may have some strong words for them. But can he shake them out of their complacency without offending them? Can he impart a sense of direction to a Church that has been drifting since Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1987? Can he heal the wounds exposed by the country’s clerical abuse crisis?
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