Pope Francis’s diplomatic skills were put to the test yesterday as he met with Argentine president Cristina Kirchner, with whom he has clashed over her socially liberal policies and what he has called the government’s strident displays of power.
Ms Kirchner also asked the former archbishop of Buenos Aires to intervene over the Falklands Islands.
The Vatican did not say if Pope Francis would accept her request. He has previously been quoted as saying that Britain “usurped” the islands.
The president called on Pope Francis at his makeshift home, the Vatican hotel on the edge of the Vatican gardens, and the two later lunched together, a day before she and other world leaders attend his installation Mass in St Peter’s Square that some estimates say could bring one million people to Rome.
Ms Kirchner also gave the new pope a gourd and straw, to hold the traditional Argentine tea Francis loves, and he gave her a kiss.
“Never in my life has a pope kissed me!” she said afterward.
The president 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 legalise same-sex marriages.
Ms Kirchner 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.
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, then Cardinal 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.
More than 120 official delegations are descending on Rome for the Mass formally installing him as the 266th leader of the 1.2bn strong Catholic Church.
Italian media say Rome civil protection authorities are planning for upward of one million people to attend the Mass, numbers not seen since the beatification of Pope John Paul II in 2011 which drew 1.5m.
One significant VIP is the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. His presence at the installation is the first from the Istanbul-based Patriarchate in nearly 1,000 years since the Great Schism divided the church in 1054.
In all, 33 Christian delegations will be present, as well as representatives of Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh and Jain communities.
They will see a simplified Mass compared to the 2005 installation of Pope Benedict XVI, with for example fewer cardinals pledging obedience to the new pope.
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