When Trump arrived at the entrance to the Apostolic Palace in the St. Damasus Courtyard there to welcome him was a broadly smiling Archbishop Georg Gänswein, prefect of the papal household. The U.S. leader then proceeded to shake hands with a dozen or so fancy-dressed papal gentleman who, one-by-one, said with a smile: “Welcome to the Vatican, Mr. President.”
In a place steeped in the staid Old World etiquette associated with royal courts, only the archbishop, still considered a heartthrob by Rome’s fading aristocracy, made an effort at jocularity.
“This elevator is not like the elevators in Trump Tower,” he quipped in his German accent as he and the nervous looking president stepped into an old-fashioned lift. Or did the archbishop say it is like those in Trump Tower? No one was quite sure. But it didn’t really matter.
This was just small talk. And the prefect of the papal household was employing it to ease any tensions that Trump and the White House delegation might have felt. It continued as they were being led on a long and slowly paced procession through the ornately frescoed halls of the papal palace towards the library where the pope receives world leaders. It sure looked like Archbishop Gänswein was enjoying his role in accompanying The Donald, proudly explaining to him some of the more outstanding accessories and pieces of art in a palace meant to impress.
And the usually scowling and dismissive Trump seemed to be just that: impressed.
Pleasantry upon pleasantry ensued from the Vatican side, always with a touch of grace, but never gushing or over the top.
And the U.S. leader, who seems to get a kick out of being boorish, was actually almost well behaved – at least during those moments journalists could witness. He did not growl at anyone or get pushy and rude. This surely came a great relief for the diplomats at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See who played a key role in organizing the president’s visit.
But if it was a miracle, it was only temporary. The next day at a NATO summit in Brussels, Trump was back to his more familiar bull in the china shop routine.
At the Vatican, however, he almost seemed normal and gentlemanly. It’s a side of him the world has not seen very often. Was it the panoply of the Apostolic Palace’s centuries-old wealth, and a reminder of the Holy See’s power, that tamed him? Or was this merely a rare display of self-discipline, knowing—as his advisors had surely warned him—that he stood to lose a lot by being a bad guest in the Vatican. He might get away with acting up elsewhere, but not here.
Even when he eventually greeted Pope Francis, Trump did not try to yank the pope’s arm out its socket, that strange shenanigan the president often pulls on other people, including VIPs. No, Trump was respectful. That was refreshing.
The pope, for his part, seemed at first a bit hesitant. He approached the unpredictable president as if he were encountering some strange, erratic animal. Think St. Francis meets Brother Wolf.
The two men spent just less than thirty minutes in private conversation behind closed doors, only a desk between them and a translator (Msgr. Mark Miles) beside them. We don’t how that meeting went or what exactly they talked about. However, it was reported that the Francis spoke in Spanish, rather than Italian. An astute interlocutor would have got the message: the pope was speaking the language of immigrants from south of the U.S. border where Trump has threatened to build a wall.
The Holy See issued brief and very general communiqué, agreed upon by the White House, stating that the talks had been “cordial” (that word again). And that included the fifty or so minutes Trump and his entourage spent in a subsequent meeting with the pope’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and his staff.
“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 favour of life, and freedom of worship and conscience,” the statement said.
It then expressed hope that Church and State in the U.S.A. might engage in “serene collaboration” to help people through “healthcare, education and assistance to immigrants.”