Highly anticipated meeting prods US president to redouble efforts to pursue peace, he tweets
President Donald J. Trump left his meeting with Pope Francis Wednesday morning saying he would would not forget what the pontiff said and that he would read the pope’s writings.
The heart of the highly anticipated meeting was a private 30-minute conversation between the two world leaders in the papal library of the apostolic palace. By Wednesday afternoon the only clues as to what was discussed came in the form of a brief Vatican statement, couched in customary diplomatic language that relies more on the passive tense and avoids attributing any statements to either party.
“During the cordial discussions, satisfaction was expressed for the good existing bilateral relations between the Holy See and the United States of America, as well as the joint commitment in favor of life, and freedom of worship and conscience,” the statement read. “It is hoped that there may be serene collaboration between the State and the Catholic Church in the United States, engaged in service to the people in the fields of healthcare, education and assistance to immigrants.
“The discussions then enabled an exchange of views on various themes relating to international affairs and the promotion of peace in the world through political negotiation and interreligious dialogue, with particular reference to the situation in the Middle East and the protection of Christian communities.”
Accompanied by First Lady Melania Trump, his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, Trump presented the pope with an edition of the writings of American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, perhaps harking back to Pope Francis’ evoking the slain civil rights leader’s memory in his 2016 address to Congress in Washington, D.C.
“These are books from Martin Luther King,” Trump said. “I think you will enjoy them.” He also presented a hand-made bronze sculpture by Geoffrey Smith, an artist from Florida, titled “Rising Above,” designed to evoke the values of unity and resilience, the Washington Post reported.
Pope Francis then presented the president with a small sculpture of an olive tree crafted by a Roman artist that the Pope said symbolizes peace.
“We can use peace,” Trump commented.
Francis also gave Trump copies of three documents of his pontificate: “The Joy of the Gospel;” the encyclical Laudato Si’, which touches on the threats to the environment, and “The Joy of Love,” his post-synod exhortation on the family. He also offered a copy of the 2017 papal message for the World Day of Peace which he said he signed personally for President Trump.
The Washington Post noted Trump’s reaction: “Ooh,” Trump commented. “That’s so beautiful.”
The World Day of Peace message says that “we find ourselves engaged in a horrifying world war fought piecemeal,” including “the abuses suffered by migrants and victims of human trafficking; and the devastation of the environment.”
“Well, I’ll be reading them,” the president said in reference to the documents.
According to media reports, Trump is deciding whether to keep the United States in the Paris climate change agreement, which is expected to be the subject of discussion between Trump and newly-elected French President Emmanuel Macron and other European leaders when they meet in Brussels later this week.
When Trump departed after the exchange of gifts and group photos, he told the pope: “Thank you, I won’t forget what you said.” The president then met with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State of the Holy See, accompanied by Archbishop Paul R. Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States. According to Gerard O’Connell of America magazine, that meeting was 50 minutes long.
Following a morning full of ceremony and packed with tours of various parts of the Vatican’s hallowed halls, Trump tweeted at about 2:20 p.m. local time that it was the “honor of a lifetime” to meet the Pope, and that he leaves the Vatican more determined than ever to pursue peace in the world.
“He is something,” Trump said of the Pope later in the day, during a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, as reported by CNN. “We had a fantastic meeting.”
That verdict was not universally accepted, especially by commentators who examined every facial expression shown by pool video, noting especially the grim demeanor often displayed by the man in white. But the encounter was civil, at least.
“For those looking for fireworks, I think they’re going to be very disappointed,” commented Paul Kengor, author of A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century. “I’m not surprised by that. The pope is a winsome, merciful guy.”
Judging from the Vatican communique, Kengor said, “It looks like they focused on areas of agreement. And I guess you might call that building bridges rather than walls.”
The statement’s mention of immigration may have been the one area of discussion where they disagreed, Kengor noted, but the statement couched that reference as a subject where the Holy See hopes the Trump administration will at least allow the Church in the US to serve immigrants’ needs, not as a prod on the direction of its policy.
That reminded Kengor of discussion between Pope John Paul II and President Ronald Reagan over US sanctions against Poland when the communist country imposed martial law.
“The Vatican did issue a statement at one point basically saying ‘We understand the US has to operate on a different plane than we do, on a more political plane, compared to our spiritual plane.'” Kengor summarized. “It’s smart to have that deference to a country and its sovereignty and what a country has to do. I think a lot of times in America, especially conservative Catholics, for example, people who might not like Francis that much and like Trump, they don’t understand that when Francis has to talk about these things he does so from a spiritual point of view. He looks at the immigration crisis not as in America a strain on the welfare state or on tax dollars in Texas or California. He looks at it as a spiritual or humanitarian issue.”
Longtime Church affairs commentator Russell Shaw commented on Wednesday’s meeting: “People who thought the encounter between the Pope and the president would be confrontational were probably surprised that it wasn’t, but that was never really in the cards. Papal audiences are generally decorous events, and this one followed the pattern. These two men hold differing views on a number of issues—immigration and environment are notable examples—and they will continue to hold them now that they’ve met. The Vatican has an ambassador in Washington, and the American government now has an ambassador to the Holy See again, so all the pieces are in place for them for them to keep communicating about these things and whatever else they want. Very likely they will.”
Whether the length of the meeting between Francis and Trump, especially compared to the last Vatican meeting this pope had with a US president—he sat with Barack Obama for 52 minutes—is of any significance is debatable. Reuters‘ Philip Pullella noted that Trump at first did not plan to stop in Rome during his visit to Europe, which some in the Vatican saw as a snub.
When he changed his mind, the Vatican squeezed him in at 8:30 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, an unusual day and an unusually early time. Francis holds his weekly audience with the general public on Wednesday at 10 a.m. in St Peter’s Square. Vatican sources say it is significant that the pope did not cancel or delay it. “His commitment to the people comes first,” one senior source said, noting that because the square will be filled with people, Trump is expected to enter the Vatican though a tiny back gate used by employees instead of the usual entry used by heads of state. “It will not be the solemn, triumphal entrance he may have wanted,” he said.
The Vatican ended up delaying the Wednesday general audience by half an hour, but apparently still could accommodate Trump for just 30 minutes.