Pope Francis is seen aboard a plane for his trip to Chile and Peru at Fiumicino International Airport in Rome, Italy, January 15, 2018. (Photo via REUTERS/Max Rossi)

Pope Francis will be arriving tonight in Chile, marking his sixth visit to the Americas since he was ushered in as the first Latin American pontiff in 2013.

The visit to Chile and Peru this time around has rekindled the debate as to why the former archbishop of Buenos Aires has yet to make a return to Argentina since making his move to the Vatican.

Francis will be welcomed to Santiago by outgoing Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and her Foreign Minister Heraldo Muñoz. Télam has reported that the pope will then make a visit to the tomb of Monsignor Enrique Alvear, known as the “bishop of the poor”, before heading to the Apostolic Nunciature. After meeting with Bachelet tomorrow the pope will offer his first mass in Chile, meet with women in prison and en with members of the clergy.

Ahead of the trip, Argentines keen on seeing Jorge Bergoglio in person have been making the trip over the Andes. “To be with him is crazy, to come from Argentina and see him, it makes me very happy” said Agustina Marchescada, 27, in conversation with Télam. As a volunteer, Marchescada has already seen Francis during his trips to Brazil and Poland.

Claudia Gallardo lights a candle in front of a statue of Our Lady of Luján before leaving for Chile to see Pope Francis, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, January 14, 2018. (Photo via REUTERS/Agustín Marcarian)
Claudia Gallardo lights a candle in front of a statue of Our Lady of Luján before leaving for Chile to see Pope Francis, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, January 14, 2018. (Photo via REUTERS/Agustín Marcarian)

In his nearly five years as pope, Francis has made 22 trips and six to the Americas. After a first to Brazil in 2013, Bolivia-Ecuador-Paraguay in 2015, two visits to Cuba (one in 2015 that included a leg in the United and another in 2016 with a stop in Mexico), Francis headed to Colombia in September 2017.

Bracing for what was expected to be heavy traffic to Chile along land borders, Argentine authorities made special preparations in order to cope with the flow. Télam has nonetheless reported that at the largest border crossing “the flow was not as heavy as expected” and that there hadn’t been major delays. As such, special procedures designed to expedite the entry of cars were not utilized. Nonetheless a a taxi driver quoted by Télam noted that there had been an uptick in international visitors arriving at the Santiago airport.

The visit has potential pitfalls for Francis. There have been protests in Chile and discontent with the visit, resentment with the Church over cases of child abuse and the run-up to the pontiff’s arrival six Catholic churches have been targeted by incendiary devices. Those responsible have not been identified by Chile’s Interior Minister Mario Fernández said that they are “small groups, with a limited capacity to act. They’ve left behind pamphlets that mix issues, they mix social issues with the Mapuche issues and with criticism of the spending on the papal visit.” No injuries have been reported as a result of the fires caused to the churches.

Pope Francis speaks to reporters onboard the plane for his trip to Chile and Peru January 15, 2018. (Photo via REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi)
Pope Francis speaks to reporters onboard the plane for his trip to Chile and Peru January 15, 2018. (Photo via REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi)

Francis is scheduled to meet with Mapuche representatives in Temuco, in Chile’s south, on Wednesday. The country’s south has seen disputes and confrontation over Mapuche land rights, and is consistently a source of tension and violence and Chilean politics. In Peru, the pope will also meet with indigenous groups that live in the Amazon area. Despite these thorny issues, Francis expressed confidence today while on the plane to Chile that the trip would not be so complicated as he is familiar with the country.

With the pope’s imminent arrival, the questions about the relationship between Francis and Argentina have resurfaced. Reuters has reported that when asked about the pontiff’s lack of a visit to Argentina, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke said only that the pope will fly over Argentina on his way to Chile and will send a customary message from his plane to the head of state. “It should be an interesting telegram,” Burke said. Last week Jorge Oesterheld, spokesman for the Argenitne Synod, said that it was “painful” that Francis was going to fly over Argentina but not stop in his homeland.

Argentine politicians across the mainstream political spectrum have made trips to visit the pope in the Vatican, and pronouncements made by Francis and the Argentine Catholic Church are often scrutinized to see of they hold any implicit or explicit support or criticism for the Maurio Macri administration. Prior to his election as pope former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was severeLy critical of Bergoglio as Archbishop of Buenos Aires – that relationship warmed significantly once Bergoglio became Francis.

Francis nonetheless had other issues on his mind as he crossed the Atlantic, saying that he was truly “afraid” that there is a chance that nuclear war could break out and called for the end of nuclear weapons. Latin America is a nuclear weapon-free zone.