24 May 2017
'I won’t forget what you said' President Trump tells Pope Francis at end of historic meeting in the Vatican
Francis gave the US President a medallion which he explained was a symbol of peace. 'We can use peace,' Trump replied
On one side of the table was the President of the United States, an embodiment of the world’s hard power, a global celebrity and a man whose personal wealth is estimated to be worth billions of dollars. On the other sat Pope Francis, an Argentine son of immigrants, elected from the “ends of the earth” to lead a Church he wants dedicated to the poor and marginalised.
Today, these two world leaders met for the first time for a half-hour meeting, a moment to put their differences aside and find some common ground. The Vatican went out of its way to accommodate Trump, taking the rare step of delaying the Pope’s traditional Wednesday morning General Audience by half an hour in order to give enough time for the encounter.
The tone of the meeting was warm and relaxed with the Pope even finding a moment to tease the president. "What do you give him [Trump] to eat, potica? [a traditional sweet Slovenian cake for special occasions]" Francis asked the First Lady when he was introduced to her. "Potica, yes?" she replied. And as they left the President turned to the Pope and said: "Thank you, thank you, I won't forget what you said."
Earlier, on a sunny morning in Rome, the President and his entourage swept into the Cortile San Damaso shortly after 8.20am local time where they were greeted by a squadron of Swiss Guards who saluted them before they entered the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace.
About ten minutes before the Pope had arrived for the audience in a blue Ford Focus car, a contrast to the President’s motorcade which is reportedly made up of 62 vehicles, although only about half a dozen entered the small courtyard.
Trump was greeted by Archbishop Georg Ganswein, the Prefect of the Papal Household and was then introduced to a line up of Gentlemen of His Holiness, men dressed in white tie who assist with state visits.
Hanging above them in the cortile was a United States flag: it is a diplomatic courtesy of the Vatican to hang the flag from the country when a head of state is welcomed. The President and his team - which included Melania, his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner - were then escorted in a procession through marble corridors and frescoed ceilings. Both Melania and the President’s daughter opted to wear the traditional black clothes and mantilla veil worn by women during papal audiences, even though the Pope has loosened protocol in this area.
A smiling Francis greeted Trump in an anteroom, before showing the President into the private papal library where the two sat down at a table across from one another. The meeting took place without any aides present, the only other person in the room was Mgr Mark Miles, a Gibraltarian priest from the Vatican who acted as an interpreter. "I’ll be your translator" Miles told Trump as the meeting got underway.
Both sides wanted the visit to run smoothly, given their past clashes over migrants and their diametrically opposed views on protecting the environment. During Trump’s election campaign the Pope called him "not Christian" for wanting to build a wall on the US-Mexico border with the Republican candidate describing Francis' remarks as "disgraceful".
Wednesday's papal audience sought to draw a line on the earlier animosity, with Francis keen to use the audience to open a channel of dialogue. But the Pope, who has a steely side, is unlikely to have held back on the points of disagreement, such as care for migrants and the environment.
The Vatican released a statement after the meeting, which highlighted some of the points with which the two leaders agree - like freedom of religion - but also express a hope that there will continue to be help for immigrants in the US under Trump. "During the cordial discussions, satisfaction was expressed for the good existing bilateral relations between the Holy See and the United States of America," the Vatican stated. "As well as the joint commitment in favour 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 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," it continued, "with particular reference to the situation in the Middle East and the protection of Christian communities."
There will, however, have been areas where they can build bridges: Trump’s audience was at the end of a first foreign trip that saw the US President travel to the focal points of the world’s major religions, including Saudi Arabia and Israel. During his trip to Riyadh, the President issued a forceful call denouncing religious extremism, something the Pope did during his recent visit to Egypt.
A Vatican summary of the meeting was due to be released in the hours after the audience. After their one-to-one the Pope and Trump then took part in an exchange of gifts, with Francis giving the president a medallion by a Roman artist with an olive tree which he explained was a symbol of peace. “We can use peace,” Trump replied.
Francis then handed him his message for this year’s World Day of Peace which focussed on non-violent approaches to conflict. “I signed it personally for you,” the Pope said.
As is his custom with visiting heads of state, Francis gave the president a copy of his encyclical Laudato si’, a landmark document on protecting the environment. This is an area where the pair disagree, with Trump in the past calling global warming a hoax created by China. Also handed over was the Pope’s apostolic exhortations on the family and the Church’s evangelical mission.
“I’ll be reading them,” the US leader said of the documents.
For his part, Trump gave Francis some books.
“This is a gift for you, they are books from Martin Luther King, I think you will like them. I hope so,” he said.
Following the exchange, the President then held discussions with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Holy See's Secretary of State. He was also given a tour of the Sistine Chapel with his wife, Melania, where they were able to see Michelangelo’s dramatic frescoes depicting the last judgment.
A trip to Rome also offered a chance for Trump and his team to show some compassionate statesmanship. Straight after the audience, the First Lady, who comes from the predominantly Catholic Slovenia, told the Pope she was going to visit the Vatican-owned Bambino Gesu hospital in Rome.
Meanwhile, the president’s daughter, Ivanka, met with victims of human trafficking at a centre run by the Catholic humanitarian group Sant’Egidio.
The Pope is actively involved in trying to eradicate human slavery; he asked Sant’Egidio to help him last year to bring back a dozen Muslim refugees from Lesbos to Rome.
Today’s visit by Trump and his team was brief and after meeting Italian President Sergio Mattarella, the President boarded a plane to Brussels where he was due to see European Union leaders.
Despite their whistle stop tour of Rome, Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner, one of the President’s senior advisers managed to find time to sample some of the Eternal City’s delights. On Tuesday evening they were spotted dining at “Da Sabatino” in Piazza di Sant’Ignazio, a restaurant that President Bill Clinton visited during one of his trips to Rome.
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