ROME — Despite their rocky start, Argentine President Javier Milei and Pope Francis appear to have hit it off as they met Monday amid speculation that the Argentine pontiff might finally go home for a visit later this year.
The Vatican said the two men met for an hour and 10 minutes, an unusually long audience by Francis’ standards.
En route to his audience, Milei stopped his motorcade along the main Via della Conciliazione boulevard leading to the Vatican to greet well-wishers and then continued on to the Apostolic Palace for the meeting. He gave Francis some of his favorite Argentine dulce de leche alfajor cookies and lemon biscuits, while Francis presented him with the documents of his papacy and a medallion.
A warm tone was already set the previous day, when Milei embraced Francis with a bearhug at the end of a Mass to declare Argentina’s first female saint. A beaming pope quipped: “You cut your hair!”
Milei’s office posted photos of the embrace on X and wrote: “May God bless Argentines and may the forces of heaven accompany us.”
It wasn’t always so. Milei, a self-proclaimed libertarian and anarcho-capitalist who is promising a wave of austerity measures to revive Argentina’s economy, described Francis as an “imbecile” during the election campaign that brought him to office. He called Francis “the representative of malignance on Earth.”
Francis, who has also lamented Argentina’s prolonged economic crisis, appeared to have forgiven him and brushed off the criticism as mere campaign rhetoric.
As recently as last month the 87-year-old pontiff repeated his hope to visit Argentina later this year for the first time since his 2013 election. His decade-long absence from his homeland, despite visiting neighboring countries like Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Chile during his pontificate, has befuddled Argentines and others alike.
Milei invited Francis to visit, and the country’s bishops have similarly pressed for him to finally come home.
Later Monday, Milei was to meet with Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni and President Sergio Mattarella.
Milei had reason to be pleased going into the audience. Overnight, Israeli forces freed two hostages with Argentine citizenship who had been kidnapped by Hamas on Oct. 7. Milei arrived in Rome last Friday after a visit to Israel where he spent time with the Argentine community.
In a message on X, his office thanked the Israeli forces for the rescue.