VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis’ diplomatic skills were put to the test Monday during his inaugural audience with a visiting head of state as he met with his political nemesis, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, and was asked to intervene in the dispute with Britain over the Falkland Islands.
It was a baptism by fire, given that the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires has been on record as saying Britain “usurped” the remote islands from Argentina and last year paid homage to the Argentines who were killed trying “to reclaim what is theirs for the fatherland.”
Argentina and Britain fought a 1982 war over the islands, which Argentina calls Malvinas. Earlier this month, the islanders voted overwhelmingly to remain a British Overseas Territory.
There was no indication that Francis, now pope, would take up the request from Fernandez, with whom he has clashed for years over her populist policies on gay marriage and other hot-button issues like birth control that will soon confront Francis on a global scale as leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
Francis may well map out some of his own priorities in his installation Mass today, which some 130 government delegations and scores of religion representatives will attend. Italian news reports say as many as 1 million people could flock to the event.
There was no immediate comment from the Vatican as to whether the Argentine-born Francis would accept Fernandez’s request, which was made during a meeting and luncheon at the Vatican hotel where Francis has been staying since his election last week.
The British Foreign Office, however, made clear it didn’t expect Vatican intervention.
“The Holy See is clear that it considers the question of the Falkland Islands as a bilateral one between sovereign nations, and that it does not have a role to play. We do not expect that position to change,” it said in a statement.
Installing the pope
Francis and Fernandez are longtime rivals: As leader of Argentina’s Catholics, he had accused her populist government of demagoguery, while she called his opposition to gay adoptions reminiscent of the Middle Ages and the Inquisition. But where the Falklands are concerned, Francis, like most Argentines, believes the islands rightfully belong to Argentina.
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.
As the meeting was under way Monday, the Vatican released details of Francis’ installation Mass, saying it would be a simplified version of the 2005 installation Mass that brought Pope Benedict XVI to the papacy, with only a half-dozen cardinals pledging their obedience to him and many gestures to Eastern rite Catholics and Orthodox Christians in a sign of church unity.
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 a gesture to the East, the Gospel will be sung in Greek as opposed to Latin and eastern rite Catholic prelates will join Francis at an initial prayer at the tomb of St. Peter under the basilica’s main altar, the Vatican said Monday.
In all, some 33 Christian delegations will be present, as well as representatives of Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh and Jain communities.
Vice President Joe Biden, who is Catholic, will represent the United States at the Mass. The delegation also includes Susana Martinez, the governor of New Mexico; Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader of the House of Representatives; and Dr. John J. DeGioia, the president of Georgetown University, a Jesuit institution.
Francis is the first Jesuit pope and first pope from Latin America.
Francis’ future attire
The Vatican also released details of Francis’ coat of arms and official ring, both of which are in keeping with his style and priorities: The coat of arms is the same Jesuit-inspired one he used as archbishop of Buenos Aires, featuring symbols of Mary, Jesus and Joseph, albeit with the papal trappings of a bishop miter and the keys of the Holy See. The ring was offered to Pope Paul VI, who presided over the second half of the Second Vatican Council.
Francis will receive the ring and the pallium, a wool stole, during today’s installation Mass.
The New York Times contributed to this report.