Meeting between Pope Francis and Argentine president signals possible turn in relationship

Pope Francis meets with Argentina President Javier Milei in a private audience on Feb. 12, 2024, at the Vatican. / Credit: Vatican Media

Rome Newsroom, Feb 12, 2024 / 12:30 pm (CNA).

Pope Francis met with Argentine President Javier Milei in a highly anticipated private audience on Monday morning, showcasing a possible rapprochement after the South American politician voiced sharp criticisms of the pontiff last year.

According to Francisco Sánchez, the undersecretary of Argentina’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Trade, and Worship — who was part of the country’s official delegation to the Vatican — the meeting was full of “surprising aspects” and “took place in a very cordial way, with a lot of sympathy, with a lot of friendship between the two,” Italian News outlet ANSA reported.

Sánchez observed that the two met for over an hour, “which is not generally granted to international delegations received by the pontiff.” 

Pope Francis meets with Argentina President Javier Milei in a private audience on Feb. 12, 2024, at the Vatican. Credit: Vatican Media

The Argentine online news outlet Infobae reported that after the meeting, Milei said the pope “was satisfied with the economic and social support program” that his government has spearheaded since taking office on Dec. 10, 2023. 

An official press release from the Holy See Press Office noted that after the meeting with the pope, Milei was received by the Vatican’s Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin as well as Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, the secretary for relations with states and international organizations.

“Appreciation was expressed for the good relations between the Holy See and the Argentine Republic, and the will to strengthen them further. The parties then addressed the new government’s program to counter the economic crisis,” the press release stated.

Argentina President Javier Milei meets with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin on Feb. 12, 2024, at the Vatican. Credit: Vatican Media

As is customary during official bilateral meetings at the Vatican, the two exchanged gifts, with the pope gifting Milei a bronze medallion inspired by the canopy of St. Peter as well as volumes of papal documents including the Message for the World Day of Peace 2024, which he personally signed Monday morning. 

The president reciprocated by gifting the pontiff a copy of the document with which the Argentine government accredited Juan Bautista Alberdi charge d’affaires to the pope in 1854, as well as a postmark dedicated to Argentina’s first female saint, María Antonia of St. Joseph, affectionately known as “Mama Antula.”

Milei also added a personal touch by gifting the pope dulce de leche and lemon biscuits from his native Argentina.

Argentina President Javier Milei presents Pope Francis with gifts during their meeting Feb. 12, 2024, at the Vatican. Credit: Vatican Media

The official bilateral meeting comes after the two Argentines embraced on Sunday, Feb. 11, in St. Peter’s Basilica after the canonization Mass of Mama Antula.

Milei — a staunch economic libertarian and a self-described “anarcho-capitalist” — was propelled to victory last year as his country grappled with chronic triple-digit hyperinflation and soaring poverty.

The 53-year-old economist has presented an economic outlook that is diametrically opposed to the pope’s, centering his plans for economic reform on radically transforming the country with his “chainsaw” plan, which includes massive spending cuts and reforms to the public administration and the treasury.

While on the campaign trail in 2023, Milei referred to the pope as a “filthy leftist,” “the evil one,” “nefarious,” and an “imbecile.”

However, since his unprecedented landslide victory in November, Milei has pivoted away from strident language, opting for a softer and more conciliatory tone. Following his election, the Holy Father called Milei to congratulate him on his victory. It was reported that during the phone call the president-elect invited the pope to visit Argentina. 

On Jan. 8, a month after officially taking office, Milei sent a formal invitation to the pope to visit his homeland, noting that the trip would “bring fruits of peace and brotherhood to all Argentines.”

“Bearing in mind your advice to have the necessary wisdom and courage, in my first weeks of government I have proceeded to propose a series of government measures aimed at transforming the situation that the Argentine Republic has been suffering for decades,” Milei continued in his letter.

While the pope has visited South America on several occasions during his nearly 11-year-long pontificate, he has conspicuously avoided an official visit to his native country. However, the pope has signaled that he would be open to visiting his country in the latter half of 2024. 

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