For Buenos Aires priest Father Mario Miceli, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio used to be only a phone call away. Today, Miceli embarks on a 40-hour bus ride to join 2.5 million Catholics gathered in Brazil for Bergoglio’s first visit to Latin America as Pope Francis.
Miceli, 36, will be traveling in a convoy he helped organize to carry some of the 42,500 Argentines he says plan to be in Rio de Janeiro to see the Pope at next week’s World Youth Day celebrations.
“He was always there when you needed him,” Miceli said in a telephone interview before leaving the Argentine capital. “If you phoned him, he would return the call the same day.”
Some who will be unable to make the 2,000-kilometer (1,200 mile) trip to Rio are disappointed that Francis, the former Bishop of Buenos Aires, hasn’t made a side trip to visit his old haunts. One of five children of an immigrant Italian railway worker, Bergoglio would travel by subway and sip mate, a traditional Argentina tea, with friends. He is a card-carrying fan of San Lorenzo, one of the capital’s leading soccer teams.
“His welcome here would have been different from that in any other country,” said Lucia Barro, a 23-year-old who is awaiting the birth of her first child. “I’m already planning my baby’s baptism, and it would have been great to have had the chance to see Francis at this moment in my life.”
Since his appointment, Francis has frequently breached protocol, sometimes plunging into crowds to shake hands and bless followers, and using white clothing and a silver ring instead of the more elaborate garments and gold bands of his predecessors.
President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is among Argentines who will travel to see the Pope. According to the press office of the presidential Palace, Fernandez will fly to Rio de Janeiro at the end of next week.
During a July 8 visit to Lampedusa he was applauded by listeners when he offered the Italian island’s Muslim community his best wishes for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
Francis’s predecessor Benedict XVI had to apologize in 2006 for a speech in which he quoted a 14-century Byzantine emperor’s negative comments about the Islamic faith.
“We are not surprised by these gestures because we know him,” Miceli said. “He has always been very humble, simple.”
Covers of the latest international editions of Time magazine carried a picture of Francis alongside the words “The People’s Pope.”
Argentines planning their trip to Rio have been having more than a long journey to contend with. Exchange controls imposed by Fernandez over the past two years have made it impossible for many to obtain Brazilian reais or other foreign currencies. In the illegal street market, the U.S. dollar costs about 8.57 pesos, compared with the official rate of 5.45.
To acquire foreign money, Argentines need authorization from the tax agency, which uses unspecified criteria to approve or reject requests. Central bank norms allow religious institutions to buy limited amounts of currency to cover expenses at events abroad, but the church can’t submit requests on behalf of individuals, Miceli said.
Paola Cabrera, 26, is traveling from Ushuaia, on the southernmost tip of Argentina. With her family and 150 other pilgrims, she will take a 3 1/2-hour flight to Buenos Aires and then a bus to Rio. The tax agency authorized her request to buy reais, though the exchange house charged her 5 pesos per real, compared with the official rate of 2.45 pesos.
“Some members of the group bought reais at that rate, but others couldn’t,” Cabrera said in a July 18 telephone interview. “We are taking cookies, cans and some other non-perishable food to cut costs as much as we can. We aren’t going on holiday, we’re attending this special event.”
Cash withdrawals using credit cards at automatic telling machines in neighboring countries are limited to $150 every three months. ATM withdrawals from peso bank accounts aren’t allowed.
Buenos Aires travel agency Bramasole arranged one-week packages, with air transport, transfers to the Pope’s activities and accommodation in schools or social clubs for $1,500. Staying in a hotel cost an additional $1,000, said Lucas Saladino, 27, who runs the company. Almost all the 60 packages offered were sold, said Saladino, who plans to travel to Rio on July 24.
After being unable to attend the last World Youth Day celebrations in Spain in 2011 “I had to take this opportunity to travel,” Saladino said in a telephone interview. “This one is much closer, and is so much more special because of Francis’ appointment.”
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