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?
That might be too much to ask from a four-day trip. But perhaps Francis can make a start. For, as he wrote in Amoris Laetitia, “It is more important to start processes than to dominate spaces.” In other words, his visit can inspire the renewal of the Chilean Church even if it can’t accomplish it.
Many members of the Polish government are avowedly Catholic, yet the Church and government are out of step on the immigration issue. This was visible when the feast of the Epiphany was marked last weekend in Poland with traditional Marches of the Three Kings, with more than a million people taking part throughout the country.
This year marks the centenary of Poland regaining its independence after the First World War, and so the celebration had particular poignancy. However the organisers were keen to stress the open nature of the event. “This is an apolitical event, we invite everyone,” explained Piotr Giertych, one of the organisers.
The Archbishop of Warsaw, Cardinal Kazimierz Nycz, referring to the motto of the March “God is for everyone”, said that no one should be seen as an “alien”. His words seemed like a rebuke to the Polish government, which opposes accepting Muslim migrants from the Middle East or Africa. The Church is taking its lead from Pope Francis, who began the New Year by calling for everyone to welcome migrants. Indeed, the question of immigration, and the duty of the Christian to welcome migrants and refugees, has become the hallmark of the current pontificate. Given that the government of Poland enjoys a popular mandate, this means that the Church hierarchy is not necessarily reflecting the view in the pew.
This should not surprise us. It is the job of the hierarchy to lead, and bold leadership is certainly called for not just in this but in other matters too. The sacredness of life, the indissolubility of the marriage bond and opposition to gender ideology may be unpopular subjects, and people in the pew may well not want to have their assumptions challenged. But God, who was made manifest at the Epiphany, came to shake us out of our preconceived world views, as the Magi themselves discovered; for we are told they went home by a different path. In the same way, the Church needs to call society to conversion, which may well mean taking unpopular stances. The courage of the Polish bishops is to be applauded.