Meeting between Francis and head of state in St Peter's Basilica

Argentinian summit in Rome: Pope and Milei draw closer

Vatikanstadt - The ice between Pope Francis and his compatriot Javier Milei seems to be melting. After a mass in St Peter's Basilica, Argentina's president hugged the Pope effusively. But a decisive meeting is still to come.

Published  on 11.02.2024 at 15:24  – by Ludwig Ring-Eifel (KNA)

It took a long time until the"Argentinian moment" at the solemn papal mass in St Peter's Basilica on Sunday. Only after the final blessing did Pope Francis approach his compatriot, President Javier Milei, in his wheelchair to greet him with a beaming smile and a handshake. Milei spontaneously stood up, leant forward and hugged the pontiff effusively. The Pope then shook hands with other members of the delegation.

For almost 90 minutes, the Argentinean head of state had sat several metres behind the papal throne at an appropriate distance, barely making eye contact. Not once during the service was the home country of the Pope and the President mentioned - even though the occasion was the first canonisation of an Argentinian woman in the history of the Church.

The Popecanonised "Mama Antula" (1730-1799) in Latin. The Holy Mass was also celebrated in the official language of the worldwide Church. The Pope did not even give the sermon in Spanish, as he sometimes does at "Latin American appointments" in St Peter's Basilica. He preached in the language of the Bishop of Rome, Italian. All of this emphasised that the new saint is now to be a role model for the Catholic Church worldwide, and no longer just a "blessed" venerated in her homeland.

No "Argentinian" remarks or gestures from the Pope

At least the accompanying booklet with the texts, in which the faithful could read along with the prayers, was translated into Italian and Spanish. And there were many Argentinians in the nave, some of whom had placed their large blue-white-blue flags with the sun in the centre over the barriers. As if to show that, from their point of view, Latin America's second largest country was joining in the service.

Two bishops from Argentina prayed at the altar during the mass; another, Cardinal Victor Fernandez, stood in the front row of cardinals. But the Argentinian who mattered, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, alias Pope Francis, did not allow himself to make an "Argentinian" remark or gesture at any point.

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Even the intercession, which was most likely intended for the state guest Milei, was read out in Italian. It read: "God, friend of peace, grant our leaders the wisdom of dialogue and the will to work together for the common good, to overcome that which divides and to seek that which unites."

This is quite the opposite of what is currently happening in Argentina, where Milei's radical austerity and reform programme has led to political tensions and protests. The media in the crisis-ridden country have reported extensively on Milei's appointments in Rome in recent days. They outdid themselves with speculation about what the two men, who come from such opposing political camps, would have to say to each other.

It is less about the new saint than about the question of what the Pope, who is categorised as rather "social", could say to the radical-liberal president. And whether he will offer him more support than just a nice photo opportunity in the Vatican.

"The people want to meet their shepherd"

Most attention is focussed on the question of whether the man who was an important figure in Argentina as Cardinal Bergoglio will finally visit his home country eleven years after his election as Pope. With inflation of more than 200 per cent and waves of strikes and protests, it seems to be approaching an abyss. And it would not be the first time that a pope has tried to influence political developments in his home country. Paul VI did this in Italy and John Paul II in Poland on a massive scale.

Expectations at home seem high. The Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Ignacio Garcia Cuerva, puts it like this: "The people want to meet their shepherd. We are all waiting for him. We want to see him, we want to hear his words. We need his physical presence in our country."

Whether the Pope will promise Milei a trip to Argentina will be decided on Monday morning, when the two will talk at length, according to the Argentinian delegation in Rome. The extremely warm embrace in St Peter's Basilica seemed like a good start.

by Ludwig Ring-Eifel (KNA)