Pope Francis and Argentina’s President Javier Milei held their first official talks on Monday, meeting at the Vatican as they seek to mend fences amid the explosive economic situation in their native country.
Milei, a liberal economist, had sharply criticised his compatriot while campaigning for election last year, accusing the pope of political interference and calling him an “imbecile” who “promotes communism”.
But in an interview this weekend the president described Francis, a former archbishop of Buenos Aires, as “the most important Argentine in history”.
The two men were all smiles Sunday during a brief meeting following a papal mass at St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican to canonise Argentina’s first female saint.
Milei gave a bear hug to the 87-year-old pope as he sat in his wheelchair, which Francis began using in 2022 due to knee pain.
At Monday’s formal audience, Milei gave the pope several presents, as is traditional, including Argentine biscuits that the pope is said to enjoy, a government spokesman said.
During their meeting, the president and pontiff — both of them born in Buenos Aires — will likely discuss a possible papal trip to Argentina.
The pontiff had called Milei in November to congratulate him on his election win, and the president in turn asked Francis to return to Argentina.
The pope has not been back to his home country since becoming head of the Catholic church in 2013. He has said he would like to return, but no date has been set.
– Economic reform –
Their meeting comes against the backdrop of upheaval in Argentina.
Elected in October on a wave of anger over decades of economic crisis, Milei has embarked on massive economic deregulation by presidential decree.
Some 40 percent of the country is living in poverty, while crippling inflation tops 200 percent.
Since his election, Milei has devalued the peso, cut state subsidies and scrapped hundreds of rules.
His reform package hit a roadblock last week, however, when parliament sent it back to committee for a rewrite, prompting Milei to lash out at his opponents, calling them “criminals” and “traitors”.
In January, Milei sent the pope a letter, saying a visit would “result in peacemaking and brotherhood for all Argentines, eager to overcome divisions and confrontations”.
Throughout his papacy, Francis has railed against the inequalities generated by free markets, calling for the protection of society’s most vulnerable.
During Sunday’s mass, at which 18th-century missionary Mama Antula was canonised, Francis again made a plea on behalf of society’s most marginalised.
“How many suffering men and women do we meet on the sidewalks of our cities,” he lamented during his address.
Mama Antula, a consecrated Jesuit laywoman born Maria Antonia de Paz y Figueroa, is considered a champion of human rights from the period when Argentina was a Spanish colony.
She was beatified in 2016.
Milei, who made an official visit to Israel before coming to Italy, is travelling with his spiritual adviser, a rabbi.
Although from a Catholic family, he has expressed his fascination with Judaism and has been studying the Torah.