Pope Francis is following in the footsteps of his predecessor St John Paul II, becoming only the second reigning Pope to visit the South American nation of Chile. But almost 200 years earlier, a young Italian priest set out from Rome for the distant country – and became the first future Pope to set foot on the American continent.
Father Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti – known as Don Mastai – was a young priest, just over thirty years old, when he was chosen by Pope Pius VII in 1823 as part of a mission to the new South American nation of Chile.
At the time, the voyage to South America was a difficult one, with the pontifical mission facing storms, political revolution, and even piracy as they made their way across the Atlantic Ocean. After three months at sea, the small party landed at Montevideo, in what is now Uruguay, and proceeded to Buenos Aires – the birthplace, more than a century later, of Pope Francis.
At each stop, the visitors from Rome held confirmations and gave religious instruction to the local people. After some time in Argentina, the mission crossed overland to Chile, an arduous journey that took them across the Andes, the second-highest mountain range in the world.
Arriving in Chile, however, they found that Bernardo O’Higgins, the young nation’s Supreme Director – whose embassy to the Pope had prompted their journey – had been overthrown, and replaced with a new leader who did not share his predecessor’s concern for the Church.
Despite the unfriendly posture of the civil authorities, Don Mastai-Ferretti found a warm welcome among the people. The young priest took an active interest in their religious life, and strove to understand their traditions and mentality, including the different aspects of their daily life. During his time in Chile, Father Mastai visited the different parishes, celebrating Mass and hearing Confessions, and even acting as a Confirmation sponsor for the son of a janitor.
Ultimately, however, the hostility of the Chilean leaders meant the diplomatic mission of the pontifical party was a failure, and Don Mastai-Ferretti sailed for home – despite an ardent desire to remain as a missionary amongst the poor peasants who lived “almost at the ends of the earth.”
Two decades later, Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti – now a Cardinal of the Catholic Church – was elected to the throne of Peter, taking the name Pius IX – and became the first Roman Pontiff to have ever set foot in the new world.