So Donald Trump is going to meet Pope Francis later this month at the Vatican, after all. And it will be an official visit, not merely a private one.
The U.S. president broke the news last Thursday (May 4) at the White House. He did so while signing a controversial religious liberty law in a Rose Garden ceremony that CNN’s religion editor Daniel Burke rightly called, “Donald Trump’s big, bizarre religious day.”
“My first foreign trip as President of the United States will be to Saudi Arabia, and then Israel, and then to a place that my cardinals love very much—Rome,” boomed the brash billionaire.
Trump, a Presbyterian, was referring to Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington and Houston’s Cardinal Daniel DiNardo. The latter, head of the U.S. bishops’ conference (USCCB), privately met the president earlier that morning.
The two Catholic prelates were among numerous faith leaders who were on hand for the law’s signing ceremony. Also present were two members of the Little Sisters of the Poor, the religious order the USCCB cynically used as the poster-child for its fight against the contraception mandate that was part the Obama Administration’s Affordable Care Act.
Now I’m not sure that The (other) Donald and his junior confrere in red were pleased to be pegged as Trump’s cardinals. But that’s another story…
The real news of the day was that the American president is going to the Vatican to meet the pope.
Up until just a couple of weeks ago U.S. government sources had been making all sorts of excuses to explain why such an encounter would be almost impossible. It would be a logistical nightmare, they said, to try to combine it with Trump’s May 25 trip to Brussels for a NATO meeting and then his May 26-27 jaunt down to Sicily for the latest G7 Summit.
Some analysts said the absence of a U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See would only add to those difficulties. One of them predicted confidently that, because of this, a meeting with Pope Francis was “unlikely to happen.”
“There’s also a problem of staffing on the White House side, as right now the perception is there’s no one who could brief Trump adequately for an encounter with the pope,” said John Allen, editor of Crux,
It’s baffling how anyone could draw such a conclusion. And it’s an insult to the diplomats at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, who are in close daily contact with Vatican officials. That includes Louis Bono, the Chargé d’Affaires and de-facto head of the U.S. mission, a seasoned Foreign Service officer and a former assistant attorney general in New York.
Let’s be honest. A meeting between Trump and Francis was never really impossible. It was always and only up to the U.S. president to decide whether or he wanted it to happen or not. The Holy See made it explicitly clear that if a head of state were to ask for such a meeting, it would find a way to accommodate the request.
But Trump and his aides took their time, carefully assessing whether the benefits of his meeting the world’s leading moral figure out-weighed the possible pitfalls. There is hardly a single moral, social or economic issue on which Trump and Francis are even close to being on the same page. Of course, that has not stopped the president from meeting other world leaders with whom he’s been at odds and has even derided. In fact, he’s emerged from such encounters professing great admiration for them and blubbering on about how a sort of chemistry was created among them.
How will it work out with the pope? It’s hard to make predictions when it comes to two unpredictable people like Trump and Francis. But I will venture to say that neither is going to emerge victorious over the other. And neither of them will end up with egg on his face. At least, preparations are being made to avoid any such scenario.
White House officials and security officers quietly slipped into Rome over the weekend of April 29-30 and spent several hours meeting with key staffers at the Vatican’s Secretariat of State and its protocol office. It is understood that both sides agreed to take all precautions to make sure Trump’s visit goes smoothly and without embarrassment to anyone.
They also agreed that if the visit were to occur, the announcement would come from Washington, not from Rome. And, eventually, that is what happened. Then the Holy See Press Office simply confirmed it in an email “alert” to journalists. However, it did not publish the confirmation in its daily bulletin, evidently not wanting to overly magnify its significance.
Shortly after the White House delegation returned from Rome, it submitted an official request for Trump’s audience with Francis and a proposed date. The Vatican accepted it, but did so by making an exception to its normal practice of not granting heads of state an official visit on Wednesdays (the day of the pope’s general audience) or Sundays.
“His Holiness Pope Francis will receive the Hon. Donald Trump, President of the United States of America, on Wednesday, 24 May 2017, at 8:30 a.m. in the Apostolic Palace. President Trump will then meet with His Eminence Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State, and Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States,” said the Vatican’s alert to journalists.
This is an unusually early hour for an official state visit at the Vatican. Usually, these encounters take place at mid-morning. But Francis obviously made it clear that he was not going to cancel or delay his 10 a.m. appointment with the tens of thousands of people who fill St. Peter’s Square each Wednesday for the general audience.
The pope usually gives no more than twenty-five to thirty minutes to a visiting heads of state or government. And analysts will take particular note of how much time he allows for Trump, trying to see if there is a message in that alone.
Francis spent nearly an hour with Barack Obama in March 2014 when they held their first and only Vatican meeting. In contrast, Benedict XVI’s audience with the former U.S. leader lasted just less than 30 minutes.
Some argued that this was yet more proof that the current pope was much more favourable to Obama than was his retired predecessor. But others pointed out that Francis needed more time with the former president because the pope does not speak English and Obama speaks neither Italian nor the pope’s native Spanish. And, so, the use of translators necessarily lengthened their time together.
However, when former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper came to the Vatican in June 2015, the papal audience lasted a mere ten minutes—and that meeting also included use of interpreters. Some believe Secretariat of State officials purposely kept the encounter brief because Harper had shown no real interest in meeting Francis, having waited more than two years after the election of the “new pope” before he even requested an appointment with him. Harper was the last major Western leader to do so.
Trump will fly to Rome on May 23 directly from his visit to Israel. He and his entourage are likely to stay at the fifteenth-century Villa Taverna, the empty and sprawling residence of the U.S. Ambassador to Italy (another key diplomatic post that is vacant at present). A large security detail, using some thirty or more vehicles, will transport the president across town to the Vatican. It will be the first appointment of a still unveiled schedule before he heads to Brussels later in the evening.
When they finally meet, Francis and Trump will be alone in the papal library except for the presence of two translators. Msgr. Mark Mile—a Vatican official from Gibraltar who is fluent in English, Spanish, and Italian—will likely assist the pope. And an aide who is also proficient in these three languages will probably accompany the president.
If Francis wants to keep on schedule (he does most of the time, but not always) he won’t be able to spend much more than a half-hour with Trump. But no one would be surprised if the meeting ends up lasting even longer. It all depends on how the two men get on and how their conversation takes shape.
Francis is keen on encounter and dialogue. He has staked his pontificate on building bridges of friendship and understanding, even with those seemingly and totally at odds with him. Trump, on the other hand, is more interested in making deals (and threats), especially those of the financial type that directly benefit him and/or his interests. These obviously include presidential interests. But he tends reduces almost everything to the bottom line: the almighty dollar.
It would be interesting to be a fly on the wall, to borrow the hackneyed phrase many of my colleagues have already used, to see how the pope engages with all this.
The life story of Donald Trump suggests that the tycoon-turned-president is interested only in himself, the accumulation of money and possessions, and a type of fame/notoriety that he obviously craves with a voracious appetite. He appears to see God—if God is even a category for him—reflected in all this power and wealth; a God found in the world’s winners, not in its “losers.”
This is not meant to be a judgment, but only a description of how Trump has portrayed himself to the world.
The story of Pope Francis, of course, is a very different one. He is interested precisely in the world’s losers, its poor, and its marginalized. God, for him, is found in the paradoxes, tensions and ambiguities that make up the real lives of real human people. Some, including those least suspect, are also trapped in misery without even being aware of it. And even they are the type of people Francis loves to engage.
I may be proved wrong, but—because of this—he should have no problem engaging with Trump.