VATICAN CITY (AP) — Argentina’s faith and politics came together Sunday as Pope Francis canonized the country’s first female saint with Argentina’s libertarian president, Javier Milei, sitting in the front row of St. Peter’s Basilica.

The Mass 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 performed the sign of the cross at the start of the ceremony, was seated to Francis’ right on the side of the main altar.

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.

In an audience Friday with Argentine pilgrims in town for the ceremony, Francis held Mama Antula up as a model of charity at a time in which, he said, “radical individualism” was infecting society today.

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%.

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.

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.”

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