ROME - When U.S. President Donald Trump and his wife Melania arrive Wednesday at the Vatican for a planned 20-minute audience with Pope Francis and Roman Catholic Church leaders they will be received with far less pomp than in Saudi Arabia.
Their arrival at the Vatican will be via what’s in effect a side-entrance to the Holy See, Porta del Perugino, a consequence of the pope’s request the faithful not be disturbed in St. Peter's Square on the eve of Ascension Day. The pope is scheduled to hold his regular general audience in the square shortly after meeting Trump.
The understated arrival, though, is reflective of an eagerness by both the White House and the Vatican to lower expectations. American and Vatican officials have been nervous in the run-up to the meeting.
The two men have never met, but they have traded pointed exchanges. Last year, in February, Trump accused Francis of allowing himself to be used as a political pawn by the Mexican government on the issue of migration. The pontiff responded by questioning then-candidate Trump’s Christian faith, saying his plan to build a wall on the border with Mexico had no basis in the Gospel. “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges is not Christian,” the pontiff told reporters while flying to Mexico.
That drew a harsh retort from Trump, who replied to Francis' comments with a three paragraph statement in which he warned the Vatican could be attacked by Islamic State terrorists and then church leaders would be grateful if he were in the White House. “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful,” Trump said.
Since then the pair have not argued directly, but the pope, the spiritual leader of America’s 50 million Catholics, has clearly been at odds with Trump on a range of issues, including climate change, asylum-seekers and nuclear arms.
Bridging the divide
Earlier this month, though, Francis was more conciliatory, saying the upcoming Trump visit offered an opportunity to listen to each other. “I never make a judgment about a person without listening to them,” the pontiff said. He followed up by saying, “I will say what I think; he will say what he thinks.”
In recent weeks there have been intense discussions about the agenda for the meeting, and, a Vatican official told VOA, they aimed to avoid “mishap” and to stage a partial reconciliation between the pope and the president. For the White House, a good visit at the Vatican will help further the goal of presenting Trump as a figure eager to unite three religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, in the fight against Islamic militants.
Papal aides told Corriere della Sera newspaper Sunday, “the meeting will be fine.” Although the paper commented that it wasn’t sure if this were a prediction, a wish or a prayer. An official told the newspaper that Melania Trump’s attendance was being seen by some papal aides as useful, as it would likely help to prevent the encounter from becoming too hard-edged.
But for all their differences, the pope, who is highly political, is guided by a deep wish to forge unity and to build consensus and he sees disagreement as a useful dynamic, argue some Vatican-watchers. In Argentina, as a cardinal he strove to nurture relationships with diametrically opposed politicians and to build trust with them and between them, acting as a pastor.
Francis will also likely be mindful that six in 10 white American Catholics backed Trump in the November elections. There is already considerable tension between the Vatican and American Catholics, especially over the church’s handling of child abuse by parish priests.
While some U.S. and Italian reporters are anticipating the meeting between the pair as a possible prize-fight between ideological pugilists, some who know the pontiff say he will search for common ground and may focus on the downsides of globalization to the need to combat human trafficking.
Austen Ivereigh, who has written a book on the pontiff, argued Sunday in Crux, a U.S.-based independent Catholic media outlet, “Pope Francis wants to be in a relationship with world leaders, whomever they are, and whatever their views, so that when the opportunity to work together arises, the bond is there.”