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Gerard O’ConnellFebruary 12, 2024
Pope Francis and Argentine President Javier Milei share a laugh during a private audience at the Vatican Feb. 12, 2024. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Pope Francis and Argentina’s President Javier Milei—who last year called the pope an “imbecile” and “representative of evil” while on the campaign trail—had “a very good and very friendly” hour-long conversation in the private library of the Vatican’s apostolic palace on the morning of Feb. 12. It was their first in-depth conversation together, and augurs well for their future relationship, but, as is normal regarding the pope’s audiences with heads of state, the Vatican did not reveal what they discussed.

It was a “very good and very friendly” encounter, an informed Vatican source told Elisabetta Pique, who is my wife and the Rome correspondent for La Nación, Argentina’s leading daily. The friendliness was evident also from the body language of the two men as seen in the photos published by Vatican Media. The visit was also longer than Pope Francis’ meetings with the three previous Argentine presidents he has welcomed at the Vatican since 2013.

The Vatican welcomed Mr. Milei with the full honors of an official state visit, including a unit of 12 Swiss Guards as a guard of honor, a red carpet and a formal welcome by Monsignor Leonardo Sapienza, who represents the papal household and escorted the president to Francis’ private library.

America learned that the pope listened attentively as Argentina’s new president, an outsider to the country’s political establishment, talked about the situation in the country and his uphill struggle for reform. This large South American country of 46 million people is rich in natural resources, but faces a deep economic crisis; 40 percent of the population lives in poverty and inflation runs at over 200 percent. (His first attempt at reform was rejected by Congress last week, following a nationwide strike.)

Pope Francis and Argentina’s President Javier Milei—who last year called the pope an “imbecile” while on the campaign trail—had “a very good and very friendly” hour-long conversation.

Sources said that for the third time, the president invited Pope Francis to visit his homeland. Francis has made clear his desire to return to Argentina for a visit, but since he has already planned a long trip to Indonesia, Singapore, Timor Leste and Papua New Guinea at the end of August, a visit to Argentina would have to be in the last quarter of this year. He has given no indication yet that this will happen.

Once the private conversation ended, President Milei, following Vatican protocol, presented his delegation to the pope, starting with his sister, Karina Milei, who is the general secretary of the presidency; Diana Mondino, the minister of foreign affairs; other government ministers as well as the new Argentine ambassador to Israel, the Jewish Rabbi Axel Wahnish, who is also a spiritual advisor and mentor to Mr. Milei.

These introductions were followed by an exchange of gifts. President Milei gave the pope, among other things, a copy of the document accrediting Argentina’s diplomat to the pope in 1854, an Argentine postal commemoration of Mama Antula’s beatification in 2016, a box of dulce de leche alfajores (a kind of toffee cookie) and lemon biscuits, which the pope likes. Pope Francis gave the president a medallion inspired by the Baldachino over the high altar in St. Peter’s Basilica and the volumes of Francis’ major publications as pope, as well as this year’s message for peace.

When the papal audience ended, Francis bade farewell to Mr. Milei, and the president and his entourage then were escorted to the Secretariat of State where he met Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the secretary of state, and Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the secretary for relations with states and international organizations. They engaged in a conversation that again lasted about one hour, after which the president and his group were treated to a visit through the ornate rooms of the Vatican and a tour of the Sistine Chapel.

The Vatican issued a press release after the president had left the city-state just before noon. It said that “during the cordial discussions” in the Secretariat of State, “appreciation was expressed for the good relations between the Holy See and the Argentine Republic, and the will to strengthen them further.” It said they “addressed the new Government’s programme to counter the economic crisis,” without giving any further information about the program itself. The Vatican press release said they then went on to discuss “various themes of an international character, especially ongoing conflicts and the commitment to peace among nations.”

America learned that Mr. Milei presented the name of the career diplomat that Argentina would like the Vatican to approve as its new ambassador to the Holy See. The last ambassador, María Fernanda Silva, returned to Buenos Aires the week before the president arrived in Rome.

The Argentine president spent three days in Israel (Feb. 6 to Feb. 9) before coming to the Vatican, and while he was there he met President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. During his visit, Mr. Milei expressed his total support for the Jewish state and condemned the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas. He also shared his intention to declare Hamas a terrorist organization and his decision to move Argentina’s embassy to West Jerusalem. He prayed at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount (known as the Wailing Wall) and in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, where he lit a candle.

His visit to the Vatican had sparked enormous interest, given that Mr. Milei, an economist who describes himself as an anarcho-capitalist, had insulted Pope Francis in many ways during his election campaign. He accused the pope of being leftist and preaching communism, denouncing his endorsement of social justice as an “aberration” and of “always standing on the side of evil” in the economic field, and of being “an imbecile of social justice.” But before the second round of voting in Argentina’s presidential election, Mr. Milei seemed to repent, saying: “If I have to ask for his forgiveness, I’ll do it. I even invite him to come to Argentina. We will receive him with all honors.”

Francis, on the other hand, dismissed the insults as rhetoric of the campaign trail, and two days after Mr. Milei was elected, the pope phoned him. It was the first time the two men spoke, and the conversation reportedly went well. Francis commended him for his “courage” in seeking the presidency and urged him to pray for “wisdom” to do the job.

It was not until Sunday morning, Feb. 11, that the two men met for the first time. Francis greeted him briefly near the memorial of Pope Leo I in St. Peter’s Basilica, before presiding at the canonization ceremony for Mama Antula, the first woman saint of Argentina.

At the end of the Mass, Francis, seated in a wheelchair, greeted Mr. Milei with a broad smile and quipped, “You’ve cut your hair!” Taken somewhat aback, the president responded, “May I kiss you?” to which Francis replied, “Yes, son. Yes!” The president then bent down and warmly embraced the first Argentine pope. “It was so nice to see you,” the pope said. “Thank you for coming, you who are half [Jewish], may God bless you!” (Mr. Milei has said he’s thinking of becoming a Jew and has a Jewish rabbi as a mentor. But he said he will not become a Jew while he is president).

After spending Monday morning in the Vatican, President Milei went on to meet Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, and Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, before departing for Buenos Aires this evening.

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