Javier Milei held his first official talks with Pope Francis on Monday, as Argentina’s president sought to mend fences with the leader of the Catholic Church and persuade him to finally visit his homeland.
Milei, 53, shared a lengthy private audience with the Argentine pontiff at the Vatican – a once unthinkable proposition given his previous public criticism of his fellow countryman.
The meeting, which lasted more than an hour, had three sections: one in which on Milei and Francis were alone; a second part, during which the president’s sister, Karina Milei, was allowed to enter; and a third, which featured the other members of the Argentine delegation (Interior Minister Guillermo Francos; Foreign Minister Diana Mondino; Human Capital Minister Sandra Pettovello).
Also in attendance was Rabbit Axel Wahnish, Milei's spiritual advisor and nominee for Argentina's ambassador to Israel.
With the first part of the meeting lasting around 70 minutes, Francis spent longer in private with President Milei than he previously had with other Argentine head of states, including former presidents Alberto Fernández, Mauricio Macri and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
At Monday's formal audience in Francis’ library, Milei gave the pontiff several presents, as is traditional, a government spokesman said. Appealing to Francis’ sweet tooth, Milei gifted the pontiff Cachafaz alfajores with dulce de leche and two boxes of Havanna lemon biscuits.
He also gave Francis a folder featuring a copy of a handwritten letter from José María Gutiérrez to Juan Bautista Alberdi that accredited him as representative in Europe (May 1854), and a commemorative postcard bearing the image ‘Mama Antula,’ the saint who the pontiff canonised in a ceremony the previous day.
Francis presented Milei with a bronze medallion inspired by the Baldachin of St. Peter, a collection of his papal writings and a copy of this year’s message for peace, which touched on the threat of Artificial Intelligence.
President Milei is due to meet the Holy See’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, later today, before making the brief journey to Rome to meet with Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.
Not so nefarious
Milei, a liberal economist, has been a sharp critic of his compatriot. While campaigning in last year’s presidential election last year, accusing the “nefarious” pontiff of political interference and calling him an "imbecile" who "promotes Communism."
However, ties were reset after Francis called Milei to congratulate him on his election win.
Local media reported that their first exchange in private included a Milei apology to the pontiff for previous remarks.
Government sources said they also discussed Milei's economic plan and social support for the poorest.
In an interview this weekend the president instead 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.
Government sources said the warmth of the greeting surprised even the president.
During their meeting, the president and pontiff likely discussed a possible papal trip to Argentina. The pontiff called Milei in November to congratulate him on his election win, and the president in turn asked Francis to return to his homeland.
The Pope has not been back home since becoming head of the Catholic Church in 2013. He has said he would like to return, but no date has been set.
Vatican insiders say Francis has thus far chosen not to return home in order to avoid his presence being used politically. For the moment, the Holy See is refusing to comment on the likelihood of a possible trip back home.
The president arrived at Monday's meeting 10 minutes late, after he got out of his vehicle to greet Argentine pilgrims who were waiting for him in front of the country’s Embassy on the Via della Conciliazione in Rome.
Eye on homeland
The closely watched encounter comes against the backdrop of upheaval in Argentina. More than 40 percent of the country lives in poverty, while crippling inflation is running at 211 percent per annum.
Elected in October on a wave of anger over decades of economic crisis, Milei has embarked on massive economic deregulation by presidential decree. He has devalued the peso, cut state subsidies and scrapped half of government ministries.
The libertarian economist’s 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 home would "result in peacemaking and brotherhood for all Argentines, eager to overcome divisions and confrontations.”
"Your presence and your message will contribute to the much-desired unity of all our compatriots and will give us the collective strength necessary to preserve our peace and work for the prosperity and growth of our beloved Argentine Republic," said the letter signed by Milei.
Throughout his papacy, Francis has railed against the inequalities generated by free markets, calling for the protection of society's most vulnerable – beliefs that run contrary to Milei’s politics and ideology.
"The Pope is always concerned; it is obviously an issue close to his heart, that people should not suffer," Argentine Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, the head of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, told reporters at the Vatican.
Messages through Mama Antula
Milei and Pope Francis were both born in Buenos Aires but have different views of the world.
One is a liberal economist and climate change sceptic on a drive to deregulate Argentina's economy, the other a champion of the poor who regularly attacks the power of financial markets and blames humankind for global warming.
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.