SANTIAGO – Pope Francis arrived in Chile on Monday on a three-day state visit, during which he will celebrate huge Masses in the cities of Santiago, Temuco and Iquique and meet with local authorities and representatives of the Catholic Church and civil society.
The Alitalia jet transporting the pontiff and his retinue arrived at Santiago’s Arturo Merino Benitez International Airport at 7:14 pm after a flight of more than 15 hours from Fiumicino airport in Rome.
The pope was welcomed by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and officials from the Episcopal Conference, as well as by the apostolic nuncio to Chile, Ivo Scapolo, and Chilean Foreign Minister Heraldo Muñoz, among other dignitaries.
“Welcome to Chile, Pope Francis! You are welcomed by a country that has changed since the visit of John Paul II. We’re a fairer, freer and more tolerant society, but with inequalities that need the message of hope from a spiritual brother of Alberto Hurtado,” tweeted Bachelet after welcoming the pontiff, born in Argentina as Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
Saint Alberto Hurtado Cruchaga (1901-1952), popularly known in Chile as Padre Hurtado, was a Chilean Jesuit priest, lawyer, social worker and writer of Basque origin, and was the founder of the Hogar de Cristo foundation.
Also awaiting the pope was the Metropolitan Children’s Symphonic Orchestra, which played a musical piece for him, and a delegation from the more than 15,000 young volunteers who cooperated in organizing his visit.
The welcoming ceremony, during which neither Francis nor Bachelet made public statements, unfolded as per protocol, with the exception of a moment when a group of mayors headed by town councilor German Codina, of the municipality of Puente Alto, broke ranks and approached the pontiff to shake his hand.
Later, Francis climbed into the front passenger seat of a hybrid vehicle to head for the San Luis Beltran parish, where he stopped to pray before the tomb of Enrique Alvear, known as the “bishop of the poor” and who distinguished himself during the 1973-1990 military dictatorship for being a firm defender of human rights.
Upon the conclusion of the welcoming ceremony, Muñoz remarked to reporters about the profound differences between this visit and the 1987 visit to Chile by Pope John Paul II.
“They were very difficult times, when Chileans wanted to speak to the pope about the (Augusto Pinochet) dictatorship, about the human rights violations. They were dark times. With this pope the challenges are different. Emigration, poverty, indigenous peoples, inequality,” the foreign minister emphasized.
Alluding to the private meeting that the pope and Bachelet will hold on Tuesday, Chile’s top diplomat emphasized that the pair “have very similar visions.”
And when asked about whether there is any fear that the pontiff will speak about the conflictual relationship between Chile and Bolivia, Muñoz said that “the pope may speak about whatever he feels is appropriate.”
“He must have his say. He knows our position. We’re very happy about his visit. I have seen Muslims and Christians welcome him with open arms at the United Nations for the efforts he is making for humanism and the most vulnerable,” the foreign minister said.
Meanwhile, Chilean anti-riot police arrested five young men during a protest near the Argentine Embassy in Santiago just minutes before the pope’s arrival.
The demonstrators clambered up onto a metallic structure supporting a roadsign and displayed a sign reading “Pope! We, the Chilean poor, are marching against the crumbs of democracy!” and one calling for another march by the LGBTI community on Wednesday at 9 am in the capital.
Near the site where the young men were arrested by anti-riot Carabineros (Chile’s militarized police), a peaceful protest has been scheduled for Wednesday morning by the Movilh gay movement “against the Catholic Church’s centuries-long homophobia and transphobia.”