Pope Francis and Argentine President Javier Milei embraced in St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on Sunday, as Argentinian faith and politics came together during a Mass to canonise the country’s first female saint.
The ceremony to declare Mama Antula a saint marked the first meeting between the Argentinian pope and Mr Milei, who once called Francis an “imbecile” for defending social justice.
The president, who performed the sign of the cross at the start of the ceremony, was seated to Francis’s right at the side of the main altar, and bent over to give the pope a big bearhug at the end of the service.
Argentines flocked to the canonisation, which turned into something of an Argentine fiesta in Rome.
Mr Milei waved to supporters in the pews as he entered the basilica and posed for selfie photos before the liturgy, while Argentine women, in particular, 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.”
During his election campaign, Mr Milei described Francis as an “imbecile” and “the representative of malignance on Earth”.
Francis spoke at length with Mr Milei after he was elected in December and has indicated he has forgiven him for the campaign rhetoric. The pope 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 Mr 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, Mr Milei wrote his frequent motto “Long live freedom damn it…!!!”
Mama Antula, born Maria Antonia de Paz y Figueroa, is a beloved figure to Argentinians, a woman who left behind a life of privilege to spread Ignatian spirituality across the nation after the Jesuits were ordered out of 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.”
“I know that he esteems her a lot, like all the Jesuits of Argentina and Uruguay, because they consider her their spiritual mother,” she told the Associated Press in the run-up 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 Garcia 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 canonise her,” he said. “But Mama Antula is a saint independent of Francis.”