Pastries and biscuits as Argentina's Milei makes up with Pope Francis

Credit: REUTERS/VATICAN MEDIA

By Alvise Armellini

VATICAN CITY, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Bearing pastries and presents, Argentina's President Javier Milei came to the Vatican to hold his first official meeting with his compatriot Pope Francis on Monday, as he sought to make up with the pontiff he has long derided.

Milei, a maverick right-wing libertarian, had heaped insults on Francis during his vote campaign last year, calling him an "imbecile who defends social justice". But the president has shifted tone in office as he tries to shore up support among his conservative Catholic base amid mounting challenges.

Francis and Milei spoke for about one hour, the Vatican said, adding that the president discussed his plans to tackle Argentina's economic crisis in separate talks with the pope's deputy, Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin.

In an interview with Italian broadcaster Rete 4, Milei said he and the pope "started to build a positive relationship" after he realised the pontiff was "the most important Argentine in all of Argentina, the leader of the world's Catholics".

"As a result, I had to reconsider some positions," he said.

In the interview, to be broadcast later on Monday, Milei described himself as a Catholic who practises Judaism "a bit". His entourage in Rome and Israel, where he went last week, included an orthodox Jewish rabbi who is his spiritual adviser and nominee for Argentina's ambassador to Israel.

Milei and the pope met as Argentina faces its worst economic crisis in decades, with inflation at more than 200% and the newly-installed president in difficulty following parliamentary rejection of a major reform package.

Before the talks, when asked about the past insults, the head of the Vatican's doctrine office said the pope "is a person who has a lot of affection for everyone, so there's no question about him having any animosity".

The pope had seen the past comments "as a campaign strategy" Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez, who is also Argentine, told journalists. Even if the pope may not like "some political and ideological trends" in Argentina, "he will always be concerned about those who suffer," he added.

ARGENTINE VISIT IN FOCUS

Francis, a former archbishop of Buenos Aires, has angered some of his compatriots by not visiting his homeland since becoming pope in 2013.

He has said he may finally travel to "suffering" Argentina in the second half of this year - though Cardinal Fernandez said on Monday it was unclear whether the papal trip would happen "because it depends on a lot of things".

Securing such a visit could be major boost to Milei as he seeks to please his conservative Catholic supporters.

Francis has previously said he did not want to be politically exploited by Argentine politicians. On Friday, he said "radical individualism" permeates society like a "virus", in words that may jar with Milei's radical free-market instincts.

But the meetings on Monday and more informal conversations earlier over the weekend appeared to go well.

Milei brought alfajores de dulce de leche pastries and a brand of lemon biscuits the pope likes, presidential spokesman Manuel Adorni said.

On Sunday, they talked at the end of a canonisation Mass in St Peter's Basilica for the first female Argentine saint, Maria Antonia de Paz y Figueroa, an 18th century consecrated lay woman better known as "Mama Antula".

Francis, who is 87 and has difficulty walking, was in a wheelchair as he went to greet Milei after the service. He smiled, extended his hand and told him, "You cut your hair!"

Milei, who still wears his hair unconventionally long for a politician, joked about having cleaned up his act and asked if he could hug and kiss the pope. A smiling Francis replied: "Yes, son, yes".

(Additional reporting by Natalia Siniawski and Angelo Amante; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

((alvise.armellini@thomsonreuters.com;))

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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