I’ve never had an archbishop run away from me before.
I had to come half way around the world to have that experience. And this wasn’t just any archbishop, but the one elected president by all the bishops of an entire nation.
What made the experience even stranger is that he had actually invited me to his office to interview him. At some point between when his secretary scheduled the interview two weeks ago and when I showed up at four o’clock on Wednesday afternoon, Monseñor José María Arancedo, archbishop of Santa Fe and president of the Conferencia Episcopal Argentina, decided he was not safe in the same room with me.
After I arrived in Argentina at the end of August, I sent an email to the CEA’s press office. Figuring my chances of getting an interview were about as good as good as being ordained a priest myself, I wasn’t even coy about what I wanted to talk about.
“I’m in Buenos Aires working on an interview on the church and the politics of same-sex marriage in Latin America,” I said, even checking my Spanish in Google Translate to make sure I hadn’t made any stupid mistakes that could confuse my request.
The next day I got a call from Arancedo’s personal secretary. “I’m calling to schedule your audience with Monseñor Arancedo,” she told me.
I’d never gotten this close to Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, even though I spent about a quarter of my time at POLITICO covering their feud with the Obama administration over birth control coverage. And he even wanted to talk about that fight. Here I was reopening a political battle the church had lost two years ago.
But she acted like Monseñor Arancedo granted interviews to freelance foreign journalists all the time.
“Muchas gracias por la entrevista,” I said.
“¡Como no!” she replied warmly, like I was a new neighbor and she was just dropping off a batch of cookies welcoming me to the neighborhood. She even offered to email me the address and time, so I wouldn’t miss my appointment due to my linguistic limitations.
I realized that this was far from routine when I had coffee a few days later with a journalist who’s been covering the Argentine church for many years.
“You are very lucky that Arancedo agreed to an interview with you,” he told me. “This isn’t something he likes to talk about.”
I spent the day before my interview prepping, digging up his recent speeches and edicts. I googled around to find the proper way to address an archbishop (though I decided saying “your excelency” didn’t strike the right tone of journalistic objectivity.) I thought about how to approach the hard questions delicately, even writing out questions in advance, something I never do even when interviewing in English.
Convinced he was going to cancel, I even emailed to confirm ahead of time.
“Muchas gracias por confirmar su audiencia,” was the answer I got back.
The headquarters of the CEA are in an old mansion squeezed amongst the office buildings on the edge of Buenos Aires’s upscale Recoleta neighborhood, set back enough from the bussling street to feel stately. But the atrium had peeling paint and oddly bare walls. It was a building with grand features that was slipping into decline.
The receptionist called up to inform the archbishop I was here, and had me take a seat. After waiting for a few minutes I spotted Arancedo making his way down from the third floor. He had a combover of white hair and a broad, friendly looking face behind wide glasses.
He’s coming to get him himself? That seemed an oddly informal protocol for an “audience.”
But he stopped on the second floor. Instead, a young woman walked just halfway down the last flight of stairs and called me up.
Then I got the first sign something was wrong. `“What exactly is your interview about?” she asked me as we walked up to the second story.
“As I said in my email, I’m working on a story about the church—“
Arancedo was standing on the landing and interrupted her, steering me towards an office and ushered me in, but not moving fully from the doorway.
“Dónde debo sentarme?” I asked him. He took me by the arm and placed me in a chair as if not quite trusting me to take the seat he indicated.
He sat on a couch, but stayed on the edge of the cushions. “So what is this interview about?” he demanded.
I began again, “As I said in my email, I’m working on a story about the church and the politics of same-sex marriage in Argentina—“
“Let me get someone who can talk to you about that. I’m not an expert on the subject,” he said, leaping to his feet.
“But I’d really like to ask you some questions …”
He had touched on the subject in a recent presentation to the Argentine Congress, but he repeated, “I’m really not an expert.” And he was out the door.
A few minutes later he returned with a much younger man who turned out to be a staffer for the conference on “life” interviews. He gamely answered my questions even though I didn’t hide my annoyance at having been given the slip by the archbishop.
I went through the motions of interviewing him for half an hour. He was a polished spokesperson, conveying what he wished me to report rather than actually answering my questions.
I’m still not sure what happened here—a slip up in the press office, or Arancedo wasn’t fully paying attention when he agreed to the meeting in the first place? But without a doubt it reflects how sensitive this issue remains for a church that is firmly opposed to same sex unions in a majority Catholic country where the public and the politicians have endorsed it.