Queen Elizabeth II with Pope Francis during their first meeting at the Vatican, on April 3. / Stefano Rellandini, AFP/Getty Images
Queen Elizabeth II met Pope Francis for the first time at the Vatican today, in her fifth meeting with a pontiff in the Holy See and one of the last foreign trips for the soon-to-be 88-year-old monarch.
And, in a gesture sure to be appreciated in the United Kingdom, he presented her with a gift for her baby great-grandson and heir, Prince George: a lapis lazuli stone orb topped with a silver Maltese cross.
For "el ninetto," he said, using the term of endearment for a little boy in Italian.
The queen said George "will be thrilled by that - when he's a little older."
Accompanied by her husband, Prince Philip Duke of Edinburgh, who will be 93 in June, the head of state of the country that defeated the Argentine pope's native country in the Falklands War in 1982 paid a private call on the pontiff in a 30-minute meeting in the papal study.
She arrived in Rome today (her first visit to the city in 14 years) wearing a lilac-colored spring coat and matching hat, almost the same colors as the wisteria blooming over much of the Italian capital, reported the Associated Press. They were greeted with the usual pomp and colorful ceremony; the Vatican is as skilled as the British at this sort of thing.
Earlier, they lunched with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano at the Quirinal palace, a meeting that ran about 20 minutes late. "Sorry to keep you waiting," she apologized to the pope.
In all, the royals spent about five hours in Italy before returning home.
This trip was supposed to happen last year but the queen, who is almost never ill, came down with a stomach bug that put her in the hospital briefly, forcing a postponement.
The royal couple are due to travel to France in June to celebrate the 70th anniversary of D Day, but their foreign trips are being curtailed because of their age. Their children and grandchildren are stepping up to take their place. Grandson Prince William and his wife, Duchess Kate, and Prince George leave this weekend for a three-week tour of New Zealand and Australia.
The Vatican said this is the queen's fifth encounter with a pontiff at the Vatican, and her seventh overall with a pope. She started with Pope Pius XII in 1951, the year before she came to the throne. In 1982 she became the first monarch since the Protestant Reformation to welcome a pope to Britain during Pope John Paul II's historic visit, and in 2010 she also hosted Pope Benedict XVI on his state visit to the United Kingdom.
The Vatican's differences with the British monarchy go back five centuries (Henry VIII and all that). Besides being the head of state, the queen also is the head of the Church of England, but she's done more than any of her predecessors to repair relations.
Differences with Argentina are much more recent. The pope is on the record as saying the Malvinas, as the Argentines call the islands in the South Atlantic, belong to Argentina. He recently met with the president of Argentina, Cristina Kirchner, who wants him to intercede in the continuing tension with Britain over the islands.
The queen says what her governments tell her to say about war and politics, and the British continue to insist the Falklands are theirs and that's the end of it.
But none of this was supposed to come up in this meeting today, according to the British ambassador to the Holy See, Nigel Baker. Officially, the Catholic Church is neutral and the queen never says anything controversial, let alone political, and certainly not in public.
But they exchanged gifts. Pictures showed the queen and her husband showing the pontiff a large wicker hamper filled with goodies: cider, honey, jams and a bottle of whiskey, all produced on lands owned by the royal family.
The pope gave them an antique parchment, dating to 1679, with an Urbi et Orbi message by Cardinal Cesare Facchinetti. The pope traditionally gives a message "to the city and the world" at Easter and Christmas.
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