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Argentina’s new head of state, Javier Milei, was received by Pope Francis on February 12, 2024, at the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace for a lengthy interview lasting about an hour.
The populist leader won the election last November after a campaign that was very aggressive and often provocative toward the Pope.
But he has seemed to grow closer to the Pontiff since their telephone call on November 22, during which Francis asked the president-elect to show “wisdom.”
Milei came to Rome for the canonization of Mama Antula, Argentina’s first native-born saint. The canonization ceremony took place on February 11 in St. Peter’s Basilica.
An early private audience
The Argentine president arrived at the Vatican at 8:57 a.m. He was the second head of state to be received that morning, after Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan.
Before reaching the territory of the world’s smallest state, the Argentine president’s convoy stopped briefly on the Via della Conciliazione (the street that is the primary access to St. Peter’s Square). There, Milei got out of his car to greet a few supporters gathered in front of the Argentine Embassy to the Holy See, taking selfies with them.
On his arrival at the Courtyard of St. Damasus, the new president of the nation of Argentina was greeted by the Prefect of the Papal Household, Msgr. Leonardo Sapienza, and by the gentlemen of His Holiness, in accordance with the usual protocol for visits by heads of state.
The meeting with Pope Francis lasted a full hour, from 9 to 10 a.m., with the delegation retiring at 10:10 a.m. Afterwards, Milei visited the offices of the Secretariat of State. It’s very rare for a papal meeting with a head of state to last this long.
By comparison, in 2017, Pope Francis’ meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, which also generated a media frenzy, lasted just 29 minutes.
Poverty and an upcoming visit
The topics of discussion between Pope Francis and Milei have not been revealed. However, it’s likely that they talked about the economic difficulties and rising poverty in Argentina, as well as plans for a visit by Pope Francis to his native country. Last January, President Milei made public an official invitation to the pontiff.
The Pope presented President Milei with a bronze object inspired by St. Peter’s baldachin, volumes of papal documents including Laudato si’ and Fratelli tutti, and his January 1, 2024, message for the World Day of Peace. The Pope reminded the Argentine president of the importance of defending the environment, to which he responded with polite acquiescence.
The Argentine president offered the pope lemon and dulce de leche cookies, the commemorative postcard of Mama Antula that the Argentine Post Office distributed on the occasion of her beatification (August 2017), and a copy of the handwritten letter from Chancellor José María Gutiérrez to Juan Bautista Alberdi accrediting him as his representative in Europe (May 1854).
One of the aims of Javier Milei’s visit to Rome is to strengthen ties between Argentina and Italy, whose leaders he was due to meet on Monday afternoon.
The presidential delegation received by the Pope included Karina Milei, sister and Secretary General of the Presidency, as well as Foreign Minister Diana Mondino, and Rabbi Axel Wahnish, Ambassador-designate to Israel.
Although originally Catholic, Javier Milei has embarked on a journey of conversion to Judaism.
A discussion regarding “peace between nations”
A brief communiqué from the Secretariat of State says that the meeting between the heads of papal diplomacy and the Argentine president was an opportunity to express the satisfaction of both parties for “the good relations between the Holy See and the Republic of Argentina, and the desire to strengthen them further.” The new government’s “program to counter the economic crisis” was also discussed.
The communiqué also mentions “certain themes of an international nature, in particular ongoing conflicts and the commitment to peace between nations.”
President Milei, who canceled his predecessor’s plans for Argentina to join the BRICS group, has instead aligned himself with the West, showing explicit support for Ukraine and Israel, where he made an official visit before returning to Rome. His announcement of the transfer of Argentina’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem is at odds with the Holy See’s traditional position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Papal diplomacy advocates a two-state solution and a special status for Jerusalem.
The two parties also discussed the vacancy of the Argentinean embassy to the Holy See. The previous ambassador, Maria Fernanda Silva, was appointed by the previous administration but not reappointed by the new one. She had a long meeting with Pope Francis on February 3 to say goodbye.
A warm interview after Mass
President Milei had already greeted Pope Francis briefly on Sunday morning, at the end of the canonization Mass for Mama Antula. The images of their exchange revealed a surprising warmth between the two men, according to journalist Elisabetta Piqué’s account.
“Did you cut your hair?” the Pope asked the atypical head of state.
“Can I give you a hug?” the president replied, before a warm embrace.
The President then took time to greet his compatriots in St. Peter’s Basilica. This uncharacteristically large turnout for a head of state visiting the Vatican seemed to take the accompanying prelates somewhat by surprise, among them Msgr. Guillermo Karcher, an Argentine priest of the Secretariat of State, who was Pope Francis’ personal secretary at the start of his pontificate.
In a context of strong political polarization in Argentina around President Milei’s libertarian reforms, one of the prayer intentions read during the mass was dedicated to those in power, urging God to inspire them with “the wisdom of dialogue” and “the will to cooperate for the common good, overcoming what divides and seeking what unites.”
Javier Milei was elected on a platform of radical break with Peronism and faces a serious economic crisis. He’s the fourth Argentine president in office to be received by Francis, after Cristina Kirchner, Mauricio Macri, and Alberto Fernández. The latter, who now lives in Spain, was granted a private audience with Francis on January 15, more than a month after leaving office. In the past, former presidents Carlos Menem and Eduardo Duhalde were also received by Francis as “emeritus” presidents.