BUENOS AIRES — As President Mauricio Macri prepares to meet with Pope Francis in Rome, attention continues to focus on the first frosty encounter between the two influential Argentines, last winter.
Francis — who had been so amenable with Argentina's previous leader, the leftist Cristina Fernández de Kirchner — was noticeably stiff and businesslike, sullen even, in his treatment of Macri, a political conservative. Their meeting last February in the Vatican was brief, strictly protocol.
Since then, attempts to improve the relationship have proved either inadequate, confused or outright harmful. The Macri administration is taking great care, therefore, to prepare for the next meeting, on Oct. 15. which will coincide with the beatification of Argentine priest José Gabriel Brochero. Nobody wants another excruciating photograph with those glum expressions.
"It was a hard blow, especially since we weren't expecting it," an Argentine government official familiar with Church affairs said of the February meeting. The source also admits that the socially engaged pontiff and pro-business president have ideological differences that "may never be resolved," in spite of sharing some fundamental concerns: fighting poverty and drug trafficking, and working to unite Argentines.
A longstanding Peronist friend of the Pope has counseled administration officials to stop fussing over the differences and instead weave them into a more constructive relationship with Francis.
For now, formal and informal conversations between the sides, last-minute initiatives and mistakes corrected on-the-go are paving the way for a meeting that will mark the tone of Francis-Macri relations for quite some time. The meeting is all the more important given that the Pope won't, as previously assumed, visit Argentina in 2017. Francis wants his return to Argentina to be an occasion for unity and fears that next year's parliamentary elections would stand in the way of that goal.
An attempt at rapprochement was made in June, when the government formally recognized and offered aid for Scholas Occurrentes, a Catholic educational foundation. But that went awry when its donation was rejected and the Pope chided the body's directors, writing personally to tell them he was "concerned you are starting to slip into the path of corruption."
He struck a softer chord in early July, telling the daily La Nación: "I don't have a problem with Macri, he's a noble person." He was also generous in his praise of the Buenos Aires provincial governor, María Eugenia Vidal, and Macri's social development minister, Carolina Stanley.
One evident problem is the constant and sometimes corrosive actions of agents apparently hiding behind the Pope to pursue their own political agendas in Argentina. But the government has also contributed to the rift. Macri's "campaign guru" and adviser Jaime Durán Barba has been openly critical of Francis. Macri tried to distance himself form the comments. Critics, nevertheless, suspect that many in president's inner circle agree with Durán Barba.
A priority now is to keep the advisor's mouth shut ahead of the Oct. 15 encounter. Likewise, the presidential retinue will exclude Macri's Cabinet chief, Marcos Peña, whom the Vatican identifies, rightly or wrongly, with Durán Barba's criticisms.
As rivalries have made their way into the media, the Vatican is launching an Argentine edition of its official gazette, L'Osservatore Romano, to ensure that the Pope's message reaches his countrymen directly. The government, meanwhile, maintains fluid contacts with the Vatican through Rogelio Pfirter, its ambassador to the Holy See. Pfirter played a key role, incidentialy, in rescheduling the upcoming meeting. The Pope and president were originally slated to meet two days later, on Oct. 17, the founding date of the Peronist movement Macri opposes.
When the Peronist lawyer and Catholic activist Juan Grabois recently told an assembly in Argentina that "the only real divide we recognize is the one between those inside, and the excluded," he might as well have been mouthing the Francis' own words. Such concerns are real: the current poverty rate, government sources report, is more than 32%. More than 6% of Argentines, furthermore, suffer from extreme poverty.
For now, people close to the Pope have promised that Macri will be well received. His team will believe it when they see it. Tensions will be running high, in other words, until the precise moment the two men come face-to-face again.