VATICAN CITY — Argentina’s President Javier Milei visited his compatriot Pope Francis in the Vatican on Monday, bearing pastries and gifts as he seeks to make up with the pontiff he had long dismissed and derided.
Milei, a maverick right-wing libertarian, had heaped insults on Francis during his vote campaign, calling him an “imbecile who defends social justice.” But he has shifted tone in office as he tries to shore up support at home amid mounting challenges.
He hailed the pope as “the most important Argentine in history” in an interview at the weekend. On Monday, he brought alfajores de dulce de leche pastries and a brand of lemon biscuits the pope likes, presidential spokesman Manuel Adorni said.
Francis and Milei met as Argentina faces its worst economic crisis in decades, with inflation at more than 200% and the newly installed Milei in difficulty following parliamentary rejection of a major reform package.
They spoke for about one hour, the Vatican said.
Francis, a former archbishop of Buenos Aires who has angered some of his compatriots by not visiting his homeland since becoming pope in 2013, has said he may finally visit “suffering” Argentina in the second half of this year.
Securing such a visit could help Milei shore up support from his conservative Catholic base, and help the president push ahead with his reforms.
On the weekend, Milei stressed Francis’ moral leadership role for a majority-Catholic country like Argentina.
Francis has previously said he did not want to be politically exploited by Argentinian politicians. On Friday, he said “radical individualism” permeates society like a “virus,” in words that may jar with Milei’s radical free-market instincts.
Francis and Milei exchanged warm words on Sunday, at the end of a canonization 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 at him, 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.”