ROME – Pope Francis welcomed the president of Argentina, Alberto Fernandez on Friday. The meeting was highly anticipated in the South American country, as it could lead to the pontiff’s first visit to his homeland since he left in 2013 for the conclave that elected him pope.

The meeting between the two lasted 44 minutes, double from the 22-minute audience he had when former Argentine president Mauricio Macri first visited Francis in Rome after being elected in 2015.

The pope gave Fernandez a sculpture and urged him to be a “messenger of peace.” Before the audience was over, Francis read the Prayer for Good Humor, which was written by St. Thomas More and quoted in the pontiff’s 2018 apostolic exhortation Gaudete et exsultate.

The two were visibly comfortable with one another.

Fernandez, a center-left Peronista, ran with running mate Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the country’s former president. Kirchner has been accused of corruption during her time in office, but has been able to dodge the charges due to the legal immunity granted for first being elected Senator and now vice president.

During the flight to Rome, the president spoke with Infobae, one of Argentina’s major online news sites, and defined Francis as a “moral leader” like few in the world. “And from that moral leadership, he raises questions about issues related to poverty and the economy that I particularly share and I would love to work closer to the pope on.”

Francis can be a divisive figure in Argentina, with different political fractions trying to claim the pope as their own, Fernandez said that the pontiff doesn’t “belong to anyone.”

“He is neither from the Peronists nor from the non-Peronists,” the Argentine president said, referring to the party founded by late General Juan Domingo Peron.

“The pope is a moral figure, huge in the world, and we Argentines have to get used to ending this discussion of appropriating the pope. He is a figure that is far beyond us and we must take care of him in his authority, and we must take care of what he really represents: He is the most important Pastor of the Church. We do not have to submit him to internal disputes,” Fernandez said.

However, a morning Mass attended by the president and celebrated by Argentine Archbishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo at the tomb of St. Peter, underneath the Vatican basilica, had a more political undertone.

In his homily, Sánchez Sorondo prayed for the “success” of the new government, that took power in December, and evoked a meeting he had had with Peron in the early 1970s.

“We ask for the success of the new president, his new mission, so difficult. We wanted to celebrate this Mass of reconciliation, which we understand is in the heart of the president, the bishops and the pope,” he said.

“At this moment I cannot not remember my encounter with Peron,” he said. “Peron was exultant and made an ode of Argentina, he talked about the possibilities of the country, of its people, of its territory, but it never occurred to him that we could have an Argentine pope and a pretty faithful pope too, [who is] close to him.”

According to Argentine daily La Nacion, this caused murmurings among those present.

Sánchez Sorondo has been in Rome for over 50 years, and his father was a well-known, Catholic, conservative politician. He currently serves as the head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academies of Science and Social Sciences. Since Francis’s election, and at his explicit request, he’s focused much of his work on the fight against human trafficking and promoting his environmental encyclical Laudato Si’.

On Feb. 5, the academy will host a seminar on “New Forms of Solidarity,” that will be attended by the managing director of the IMF, Kristalina Georgieva, and Argentina’s minister of economy, Martin Guzman. With a multi-billion dollar debt to renegotiate, the two are expected to have the opportunity to talk. Some, including the New York Times, have read this as an attempt by the pope to help his country avoid defaulting (again).

Despite the high expectations that Argentina could soon have its first papal trip since St. John Paul II visited in 1987, at this point there’s no concrete pland, and with rumored trips to Asia, Africa, Greece and even Lebanon for 2020, it seems improbable that this will be the year.

Last May, Francis had let the Argentine bishops know that a visit to mark the 500th anniversary of the first Catholic Mass in this nation –  which will be in April – was a possibility, but soon after the election of Fernandez, back in October, all rumors of trip began to dry up.

On the way to Thailand and Japan in late November, a journalist asked the pontiff when he would be going back home. His response was a shrug of his shoulders accompanied by the Spanish version of, “Ask God.”

A week earlier, he had told Argentina’s state-run news agency that he saw a trip to Argentina during 2020 as “difficult.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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