On 19 June 2017, the Vatican announced that the head of the Catholic Church, pope Francis, was going to make an apostolic trip to Chile from 15 to 18 January, 2018.
The news became particularly special to those catholic Chileans who live in one of the three cities the pontiff is set to visit: Santiago, the country’s capital; Temuco, in La Araucanía region, south; and Iquique, in the Tarapacá region, north.
Nevertheless, and following child molestation and sexual abuse scandals involving priests, the place that the Church once had in Chilean society has withered.
In fact, Francis’ visit will unravel in a less Christian country that the one John Paul II found back in April 1987, which represents a challenge to the Church in a country in which atheists, agnostics and protestant figures are rising. President Michelle Bachelet is an agnostic herself; however, she has shown great sympathy towards the bishop of Rome’s trip.
Furthermore, according to Latinobarómetro, Chile has the lowest confidence level in the Church across Latin America with 36%, lower than Argentina, 55%; Brasil, 69%; Bolivia, 73%; Paraguay, 77%; and the average of the region, 65%.
The reasons behind this are also related to the fact that the catholic population in the country is not only decreasing, but also aging, which translates to a drop in baptisms, marriages, first communions and the amount of young men who want to become clergymen. In the 1992 Census, 76,7% identified as catholic which fell to a 67,3% in the 2012 Census.
The State has shown great willingness to contribute in terms of organizing Francis’ visit. Congress passed bills to declare regional holidays the days in which Bergoglio is going to offer masses, one in each city.
Ms Bachelet stated that she is “proud” to lead the “fairer, more inclusive and better” Chile he will get to know. The head of State also affirmed that the country has changed “for good” in the last 30 years, posting a column in a broadsheet highlighting the strong democracy as well as the crucial social changes that Chile has witnessed.
In addition, she added that her Government has carried out plans and programmes which agree with his message. “We share the concern to focus on those who have been excluded from enjoying the results of (economic) development”, Bachelet said.
Francis’ trip has caused huge controversy due to the high cost of the visit, around 16 millon dollars. Almost 12 million are going to be spent by the State in matters of security, organization and logistics.
La Araucanía region hosts the majority of Chile’s largest indigenous group, the Mapuche people, who have openly denounced the use of a strip of land considered sacred by them during one of Francis’ masses, to be held on 17 January.
For long, the Mapuche have been targeted as a group who chooses violence in order to reassert their claim to vindicate the contested lands that were annexed by the Chilean State in the late 19th century.
Last week, four churches were firebombed ahead of Francis’ visit, with leaflets left around the burning ruins with pro-Mapuche slogans and threatening messages against the head of the Church. One of them read “the only church that illuminates is the one that burns”. Another said “Pope Francis, the next bombs will be in your cassock”.
The Public Prosecutor’s Office, along with the Police, opened an investigation on the matter and both president Bachelet as well as president-elect, Sebastián Piñera, condemned the attack on the temples.
Ms Bachelet stated that, in a democracy, all demonstrations have to be peaceful. Piñera, on the other hand, asked to welcome the Pope with “joy” and “in peace”. His arrival is set for 8:10pm, local time, when he will become the first Pope to visit the country in 30 years.
On Tuesday, he is scheduled to visit the presidential palace, La Moneda, and hold a meeting with Ms Bachelet. Bergoglio is going to give his first mass at Parque O’Higgins at 10:30am. Later, he will become the first pontiff ever to visit an all-female jail.
On Wednesday, he is going to travel to La Araucanía Region, to offer a mass at the Maquehue airport, in Temuco, with his return to Santiago programmed at 3.30pm. On Thursday, his holiness will travel to the far north, to Iquique, in the Tarapacá region, for another mass. Each liturgy is expected to draw an estimated 500.000 people.
Notwithstanding, Chileans graded Francis’ image with a 5,3 -on a scale from 0 to 10-. The approval of the Church has also dropped, from 44% -in 2015- to 36%, and last week, a poll revealed that only 23% of the country regards his visit as important, 26% believes it is somewhat important and 50% that his trip is not important.