ROME –Pope Francis, a staunch critic of food waste who has published an entire interview book dedicated to the so-called “slow food” movement, yet whose Vatican actually owns a McDonald’s restaurant, held a private meeting Monday with the president of the fast-food chain.

When the pope’s list of daily appointments was issued Monday morning, of note was Christopher John Kempczinski, President and Chief Executive Officer of the McDonald’s Corporation, who reportedly grew up Catholic.

Kempczinski, 54, joined the McDonald’s team in 2015 and stepped into the position as president and CEO in 2019.

Over the years, McDonalds has become an icon of the rapid-paced unhealthy American “fast-food” culture, and is often associated with the epidemic of American obesity. It was the at the heart of the 2005 American documentary film “Super-Size Me,” which starred and was directed by Morgan Spurlock, an independent filmmaker who documented his gastro-social experiment of eating only food available on the McDonald’s menu for a month.

As might be expected, Spurlock gained a significant amount of weight, his energy levels plummeted, and he encountered various other side-effects ranging from mood swings to sexual dysfunction to developing a fatty liver and soaring cholesterol.

Though Spurlock was able to lose the weight and eventually get his body back into shape, the film did significant damage to the reputation of the American fast-food industry, though not enough to stop people from eating its products.

Pope Francis’s meeting with Kempczinski came as a surprise to many, given the pontiff’s environmental advocacy and his frequent condemnations of market capitalism.

In 2020 an interview book with the pontiff and Carlo Petrini, the founder of the global “Slow Food” movement, was published titled, TerraFutura: Conversations with Pope Francis on Integral Ecology.

Established in 1989, the movement is a grassroots initiative that seeks to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions while counteracting the increased prevalence of the fast-food lifestyle and peoples’ dwindling interest in the food they eat – its quality, where it comes from, and how food choices impact the world.

The book is based on the concept of “integral ecology” touted by Pope Francis in his 2015 eco-encyclical Laudato Si and is based on three casual conversations between Petrini and the pope in which they discuss the need to care for and preserve the planet by fostering greater solidarity and attention to the poor.

Those conversations took place in 2018, following a catastrophic earthquake in central Italy; in 2019 before the opening of the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon that year, and in 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Organized according to the themes of biodiversity, economy, migration, education and community, the book aims to illustrate the Slow Food movement’s approach to food, which emphasizes the connection between the planet, what gets served on the plate, and the culture of those serving it.

Though he did not speak out directly on food quality in Laudato Si, Pope Francis in the document stressed the importance of eliminating food waste, for which the fast-food industry has become infamous.

At one point Francis said that approximately a third of all food produced is discarded, saying, “Whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor.”

Advocating for a sustainable development of the earth’s resources, he said that “a technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress.”

“Frequently, in fact, people’s quality of life actually diminishes – by the deterioration of the environment, the low quality of food or the depletion of resources – in the midst of economic growth. In this context, talk of sustainable growth usually becomes a way of distracting attention and offering excuses,” he said.

Yet in 2016, the Vatican had its own controversy involving McDonald’s when it awarded the company a contract for one of its properties located just around the corner from St. Peter’s Square.

Dubbed “McVatican,” the restaurant is located on the intersection of Rome’s Via del Mascherino and Via Borgo Pio, literally around the corner from the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica.

The contract was awarded by the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See, known as APSA and which oversees the Vatican’s real estate holdings, among other things, for 30,000 euros a month ($32,061).

At the time, APSA received a wave of criticism, including from the late Italian Cardinal Elio Sgreccia, who once ran the Pontifical Academy for Life and who in an interview with Italian newspaper La Reppublica called the decision to award McDonald’s the contract “controversial.”

Not only was the presence of a fast-food chain so close to the Vatican offensive to the “architectural and urban traditions” of the area, but it is a tourist draw that “ignores the culinary traditions of the Roman restaurant” by offering “mega sandwiches” which are a hazard to people’s health, Sgreccia said.

For its official opening in December 2017, that McDonald’s donated dozens of meals to a charity organization that distributed them at a walk-in clinic in Rome and pledged that an additional 1,000 meals would be given to charity over the subsequent 6-month period.

At the time, the poor and needy who received the meals voiced hope that McDonald’s would continue donating food, with one middle-aged man telling Reuters, “It would be good if these multi-national companies gave food at the end of the day to poor people who don’t have any, instead of throwing it away.”

The so-called “McVatican” has since become a neighborhood staple, especially for families with young children, though skeptics have questioned its ongoing engagement with the poor.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen