Pope and Argentine President Milei embrace after pontiff canonizes Argentina’s first female saint

Vatican Media via AP, HO
In this image made available by Vatican Media, Argentine President Javier Milei, right, greets Pope Francis prior to the start of the canonization mass of Argentine first female saint, María Antonia de Paz y Figueroa also known as “Mama Antula” presided over by Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Basilica at The Vatican, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024.

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis and Argentine President Javier Milei embraced Sunday in St. Peter’s Basilica, as Argentine faith and politics came together during a Mass to canonize the country’s first female saint.

The ceremony to declare Mama Antula a saint marked the first meeting between the Argentine pope and Milei, who once called Francis an “imbecile” for defending social justice. The president, who was seated to Francis’ right on the side of the main altar throughout the ceremony, bent over and gave the pope a big bearhug when Francis was wheeled over to him at the end of the service.

“You cut your hair!” Francis quipped as he approached, in reference to Milei’s trademark unruly locks.

Mama Antula was an 18th century laywoman who ministered to the poor and helped keep Jesuit spirituality alive in Argentina after the religious order — to which the pope belongs — was suppressed.

Argentines flocked to the canonization, which turned into something of an Argentine fiesta in Rome. Milei waved to supporters in the pews as he entered and left the basilica and posed for selfie photos, as Argentines celebrated a saint who defied the norms for women of her time to spread the faith.

In his homily, Francis praised Mama Antula as a model of charity and urged the faithful to really touch the wounds of the poor, as Jesus overcame fear and prejudice to touch the wounds of lepers.

“How many suffering men and women do we meet on the sidewalks of our cities,” he said. “And how many fears, prejudices and inconsistencies, even among those who are believers and call themselves Christians, contribute to wounding them all the more!”

Milei is to meet privately with Francis on Monday, before also having private talks with Italy’s far-right Premier Giorgia Meloni and the president.

During his campaign, Milei described Francis as an “imbecile” and “the representative of malignance on Earth.”

Francis spoke at length with Milei after he was elected in December and has indicated he has forgiven him for the campaign rhetoric. Francis has said he is considering visiting Argentina later this year in what would be his first trip home since his 2013 election.

After arriving in Rome on Friday from Israel, where Milei announced the relocation of the Argentine embassy to Jerusalem, the president visited the Colosseum and the church housing one of Michelangelo’s best-known sculptures: a seated Moses.

In an Instagram post accompanying a photo of himself looking at the sculpture, Milei wrote his frequent motto “Long live freedom damn it…!!!”

The president, who describes himself as an anarcho-capitalist, has promised to drastically reduce state spending to shore up a government budget deficit that he says is fueling inflation, which finished 2023 at 211%.

On Sunday, he appeared firmly engaged in the Mass, making the sign of the cross several times, receiving Communion and burying his head in his hands as he knelt in prayer afterward.

Mama Antula, born María Antonia de Paz y Figueroa, is a figure beloved to Argentines, a woman who left behind a life of privilege to spread Ignatian spirituality across Argentina after the Jesuits were ordered expelled from Spain’s colonies. She is held up in particular by Argentine women as a model of strength and independence, at a time when women’s options in life included marriage or entering the convent.

“The first female saint — it’s an enormous step forward,” said Argentine pilgrim Annabella Lopez as she waited for the Mass to begin. “It’s a pity it couldn’t have happened before, but fine, now women are starting to have more visibility and this is a great step also for the church.”

Silvia Correale, who spearheaded Mama Antula’s sainthood process, said she remembered she first met the future Pope Francis when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires and Mama Antula’s candidacy had just cleared an important hurdle in the Vatican.

“I know that he esteems her a lot, like all the Jesuits of Argentina and Uruguay, because they consider her their spiritual mother,” Correale told The Associated Press in the runup to the ceremony. “They know that she kept the treasure of the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius alive in the years they weren’t there.”

But the current archbishop of Buenos Aires, Archbishop Jorge Ignacio García Cuerva, said it would be wrong to think that Mama Antula is only being made a saint now because a Jesuit Argentine pope happens to be running the Catholic Church.

He noted that the actual process opened in 1905, and that it was Pope Benedict XVI who put her on the path to possible sainthood when he declared her venerable in 2010.

“It’s a gift of God that Pope Francis — an Argentine pope, a Jesuit pope — can canonize her,” he said. “But Mama Antula is a saint independent of Francis.”