Vatican diplomacy: New pope, Argentine president meet

Pope Francis meets with Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner on March 18, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. L'Osservatore Romano

VATICAN CITY Pope Francis' diplomatic skills were put to the test Monday as he had lunch with Argentine President Cristina Fernandez: As leader of Argentina's Catholics, he had accused her populist government of demagoguery while she called his position on gay adoptions reminiscent of the Middle Ages and the Inquisition.

That was then. On Monday, Fernandez gave the new pope a mate gourd and straw, to hold the traditional Argentine tea that Francis loves, and he gave her a kiss.

"Never in my life has a pope kissed me!" Fernandez said afterward.

Fernandez called on the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires at his temporary home, the Vatican hotel on the edge of the Vatican gardens, and the two later had lunch together, a day before she and other world leaders attend his installation Mass in St. Peter's Square that some estimates say could bring 1 million people to Rome.

The Vatican on Monday released details of the Mass, saying it would be a simplified version of the 2005 installation Mass that brought Pope Benedict XVI to the papacy, with many gestures to Eastern rite Catholics and Orthodox Christians in a sign of church unity.

The Vatican also released details of Francis' coat of arms and official ring, both of which are in keeping with his simple style and harking back to popes past: The coat of arms is the same Jesuit-inspired one he used as archbishop of Buenos Aires, while the ring was once offered to Pope Paul VI, who presided over the second half of the Second Vatican Council, the church meetings that modernized the church.

Francis will officially receive the ring and the pallium, a woolen stole, during Tuesday's installation Mass, which is drawing six sovereign rulers, 31 heads of state, three princes and 11 heads of government to the Vatican. Fernandez leads the largest delegation with 19 members.

A nun holds a photo of Pope Francis following Sunday Mass outside the Metropolitan Cathedral, March 17, 2013 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The archbishop of Buenos Aires will be installed as pope at the Vatican on Tuesday.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

She and her predecessor and late husband, Nestor Kirchner, defied church teaching to push through a series of measures with popular backing in Argentina, including mandatory sex education in schools, free distribution of contraceptives in public hospitals, and the right for transsexuals to change their official identities on demand. Argentina in 2010 became the first Latin American country to legalize same-sex marriages.

According to Francis' authorized biographer, Sergio Rubin, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was politically wise enough to know the church couldn't win a straight-on fight against gay marriage, so he urged his bishops to lobby for gay civil unions instead. It wasn't until his proposal was shot down by the bishops' conference that he declared what gay activists called a "war of God" on the measure — and the church lost the issue altogether.

Fernandez issued a perfunctory message of congratulations when Francis was elected last week, calling the election of the first Latin American pope "historic" and saying she hoped that given his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, the new pope would inspire world leaders to pay greater attention to the poor and pursue dialogue rather than force to resolve disputes.

She has, however, remained unusually silent about the election on her otherwise prolifically active Twitter account, posting a single tweet on his election day: "To your Holiness Francis I" with a link to her letter of congratulations, which wasn't even signed.

Their chilly relations became crystal clear after the Kirchners several years ago stopped attending the church's annual "Te Deum" address challenging society to do better, which is delivered each May 25.

In last year's address, Bergoglio said Argentina was being harmed by demagoguery, totalitarianism, corruption and efforts to secure unlimited power: a strong message in a country whose president has ruled by decree and left scandals unpunished.

The Fernandez meeting isn't the only diplomatic dance Francis will be conducting this week as more than 132 government delegations descend on Rome for the Mass formally installing Francis as the 266th leader of the 1.2-billion strong Catholic Church.

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