BRUSSELS — President Donald Trump had a cordial audience with Pope Francis Wednesday at the Vatican, their first face-to-face meeting since the leader of the Catholic Church and the then-presidential candidate tussled on Twitter in the heat of the 2016 campaign.
The meeting lacked the fireworks of last year’s social media exchange, instead offering ceremony and civility.
“Thank you. Thank you. I won’t forget what you said,” Trump told the pontiff after posing for photos, exchanging gifts and talking privately for about half an hour.
Trump elaborated slightly on the meeting several hours later, as he sat down with Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni in Rome.
“It was an honor to be with the pope,” he told reporters, adding, “He is something. We had a fantastic meeting.”
Honor of a lifetime to meet His Holiness Pope Francis. I leave the Vatican more determined than ever to pursue PEACE in our world. pic.twitter.com/JzJDy7pllI
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 24, 2017
The Vatican issued a statement after the meeting between Trump and Francis and a separate session between the president and the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, saying the two sides agreed on their “joint commitment in favor of life and freedom of worship and conscience.”
“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 health care, education and assistance to immigrants,” it said.
The White House billed the first three stops of Trump’s first presidential foreign tour in Saudi Arabia, Israel and Rome as something of a faith trifecta designed to showcase the common purpose that binds three of the world’s major religions – Islam, Judaism and Christianity.
In visiting the Vatican, Trump recognized his religion, Christianity, as a force for good in the world and seized an opportunity to showcase the common ground he shares the leader of an important voter constituency, Catholics.
Political differences passed over
Some observers had wondered if the pontiff would use the occasion to scold Trump publicly for what critics considered his anti-immigrant stance during the campaign, including his promise to build a wall on the border with Mexico. The Catholic Church under Pope Francis has worked to support some undocumented workers fighting deportation orders.
Pope Francis also disagrees with Trump about climate change. The Vatican has urged the administration to stay in the Paris climate change treaty, a 2015 agreement aimed at reducing man-made contributions to global warming that some Trump aides want the U.S. to abandon.
But the pope had signaled that he would hold back in his first meeting with Trump, telling reporters recently, “I will say what I think and he will say what he thinks. But I have never wanted to make a judgment without first listening to the person.”
The public war of words between the two during the campaign accelerated when the pope tweeted in 2016, “A person who only thinks about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not a Christian.”
POPE 2/2016: "a person who only thinks about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges,is not Christian." See his walls pic.twitter.com/LMC9Vjkmmm
— Cathy O'Dell Town (@youlivethrice) May 24, 2017
An angry Trump responded, “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful. I am proud to be a Christian and as president I will not allow Christianity to be consistently attacked and weakened, unlike what is happening now, with our current President.” Since then, neither man has modified his position on immigration appreciably.
VIDEO: Trump responds to pope's comments: "For a religious leader to question a person's faith is disgraceful": https://t.co/IdiUqn23hz
— The Associated Press (@AP) February 18, 2016
But since winning office, the Trump administration has reached out to the pope by focusing on areas where the administration and the church agree. Heritage Foundation senior fellow James Carafano, who served on Trump’s transition team, noted “The administration cares about human trafficking, religious persecution, two aspects of human rights and the administration’s really pretty forward-leaning on.”
When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson briefed reporters about Wednesday’s meeting, he said the topic of immigration did not come up. He also said the White House has discussed the Paris climate treaty with church officials, but that Trump has not made up his mind on the subject and will not do so until after returning to the White House.
Arrivals offer stark contrast
The morning began when a single blue Ford Focus pulled through the Vatican courtyard and the pontiff emerged alone from the backseat. The Swiss Guard stood watch as journalists snapped photos with cameras and cell phones from a distance.
Minutes later, sirens sounded and a fleet of large black SUVs swarmed the confined space. Trump emerged in a suit and striped blue tie from an armored vehicle known as “The Beast,” escorted by a phalanx of family and aides. As is customary for papal audiences, first lady Melania Trump and daughter Ivanka wore black — below-the-knee black lace dresses and veils.
Archbishop Georg Ganswein escorted Trump and the group, which included Tillerson, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and longtime Trump aide Hope Hick, inside.
The Trump entourage met Francis briefly, then sat in a waiting room while Trump met privately with the pope and a translator.
In an exchange of gifts, Trump presented the pope with a first-edition set of Dr. Martin Luther King’s works.
Among the gifts which the pope gave Trump were three encyclicals, including one he had written on the need for strong stewardship of the environment, as well as a World Day of Peace message about nonviolence. “I signed it personally for you,” he told the president.
In a friendly exchange, Pope Francis asked the first lady if she gives feeds the president “potica,” a popular dessert in her native Slovenia. The two also discussed a visit the first lady was about to make to the Vatican-owned Bambino Gesu Pediatric Hospital.
Trump’s day in Italy, which concluded when he flew to Brussels for meetings Thursday with NATO allies, lacked the public spectacle that filled his visits to Saudi Arabia and Israel. But the president’s warm reception from the pope clearly had Trump feeling good about the third leg of his nine-day trip.
Hours afterward he took to Twitter, writing, “Honor of a lifetime to meet His Holiness Pope Francis. I leave the Vatican more determined than ever to pursue PEACE in our world.”
Contact Debra J. Saunders at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.