Argentines try to understand why the pope won't return home

Pope Francis has flown over the massive Andes cordillera, visited the poor in several slums and rubbed shoulders with presidents in six visits to Latin America. But in five years as pope, he has never returned home to Argentina.

Resigned to that reality, tens of thousands of Argentines traveled to Chile this week to see Francis next door, some frustrated with his stubborn refusal and others assuming he must have his reasons.

"Argentines often ask themselves, 'Why doesn't he want to go home?'" said Sonia Fonseca, a housewife who came to Santiago to see Francis. "Apparently he doesn't want to."

"Argentines are behaving badly," mused Gilberto Madriago, another Argentine who traveled to Santiago for the visit. "He is punishing us for sure."

Francis did send a greeting message to his homeland as he flew over Argentina on Monday evening on his way to Chile. Not even that was received well.

"Francis began his visit to Chile after sending a protocol message to Argentines," the front page of La Nacion said Tuesday.

"Francis flew over Argentina and sent a cold message" read a headline in Clarin, Argentina's largest daily.

Most Vatican watchers attribute the pope's reluctance to return home to his revulsion of being used by Argentina's political factions, since any visit would involve a series of protocol visits, photo-ops and propaganda opportunities for whichever government is in power.

Before becoming pope, then-Buenos Aires Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio was careful even to check who received Communion from him, since the gesture could be seen as an endorsement of the recipient.

Francis clashed with some of Argentina's top leaders when he oversaw the Argentine church.

He accused former President Cristina Fernandez's populist government of demagoguery, while she called his opposition to gay adoptions reminiscent of the Middle Ages and the Inquisition.

Francis also clashed as archbishop with current President Mauricio Macri when Macri was mayor of Buenos Aires. In 2009, he became furious when Macri decided not to appeal when a gay couple sued the city for not issuing a marriage license and won.

Since becoming pope, Francis has received both Fernandez and Macri at the Vatican.

Before embarking on the trip to Chile and Peru, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke was asked why Francis was staying away from his homeland.

"Let's let the Holy Father respond," Burke said, though he noted that the pope would at least send a flyover telegram.

As she walked out of church in Buenos Aires on Tuesday, Patricia Ledesma said she felt "disappointment" that Francis was celebrating Mass in Chile and not Argentina.

"When they elected him pope, all Argentines wept tears of joy," she said.

Argentina's government said Tuesday that that the pope's decision is not politically motivated.

"Argentina is his home, his land, and he doesn't need an invitation," Argentine Cabinet chief Marcos Pena told reporters.

The pope has visited every country neighboring Argentina except Uruguay, and his appearances in Latin America often have had a political edge to them.

In 2015, Francis received an unusual gift of books about the health benefits of coca leaves from Bolivian President Evo Morales, called for the protection of the environment in bio-diverse Ecuador and dedicated a Mass to women in Paraguay.

In 2016, he pressed a subtle message to Cubans to overcome ideological preconceptions and be willing to change. Last year, he visited Colombia, offering a message of hope to heal wounds left by Latin America's longest-running armed conflict.

Whatever his reasons, Argentines say they will be glad to see him whenever he is ready.

"He told me: 'Pray for me,'" said Carmen Gonzalez, who panhandles outside a downtown Buenos Aires church, where she once received Communion and a blessing from Bergoglio. "Since then, I always do."

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Associated Press writer Patricia Luna reported this story in Santiago and AP writer Luis Andres Henao reported from Buenos Aires, Argentina. AP writers Nicole Winfield in Santiago and Almudena Calatrava in Buenos Aires contributed to this report.