By Cindy Wooden
Pope Francis and President Donald Trump spent 30 minutes speaking privately in the library of the Apostolic Palace May 24, and as the President left, he told the Pope, “I won’t forget what you said.”
The atmosphere at the beginning was formal and a bit stiff. However, the mood lightened when Pope Francis met First Lady Melania Trump, and asked if she fed her husband “potica,” a traditional cake in Slovenia, her homeland. There were smiles all around.
Pope Francis gave President Trump a split medallion held together by an olive tree, which his interpreter told him is “a symbol of peace.”
Speaking in Spanish, the Pope told President Trump, “I am giving you this because I hope you may be this olive tree to make peace.”
The President responded, “We can use peace.”
Pope Francis also gave the President a copy of his message for World Peace Day 2017 and told him, “I signed it personally for you.”
In addition, he gave President Trump copies of his documents on “The Joy of the Gospel,” on the family and “Laudato Si’” on the environment.
Knowing that Pope Francis frequently has quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., President Trump presented Pope Francis with a large gift box containing five of the slain civil rights leader’s books, including a signed copy of The Strength to Love.
“I think you will enjoy them,” the President told the Pope. “I hope you do.”
After meeting the Pope, President Trump went downstairs to meet Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, and Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican foreign minister.
He was accompanied by Rex Tillerson, U.S. secretary of state, and H.R. McMaster, his national security advisor. The meeting lasted 50 minutes.
The Vatican described the President’s meetings with both the Pope and with top Vatican diplomats as consisting of “cordial discussions,” with both sides appreciating “the good existing bilateral relations between the Holy See and the United States, as well as the 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 healthcare, education and assistance to immigrants,” the Vatican said.
The discussions also included “an exchange of views” on international affairs and on “the promotion of peace in the world through political negotiation and interreligious dialogue, with particular reference to the situation in the Middle East and the protection of Christian communities.”
Because of the Pope’s weekly general audience, Pope Francis and President Trump met at 8:30 a.m., an unusually early hour for a formal papal meeting. The early hour meant Pope Francis still could greet the thousands of pilgrims and visitors waiting for him in St. Peter’s Square.
Reaching the St. Damasus Courtyard of the Apostolic Palace, where the U.S. flag flew for the morning, President Trump was welcomed by Archbishop Georg Ganswein, prefect of the papal household, and a formation of 15 Swiss Guards.
Although President Trump and Pope Francis are known to have serious differences on issues such as immigration, economic policy and climate change, the Pope told reporters 11 days before the meeting that he would look first for common ground with the U.S. leader.
“There are always doors that are not closed,” the Pope told reporters May 13. “We have to find doors that are at least a little open in order to go in and speak about things we have in common and go forward.”
After leaving the Vatican, President Trump was driven across Rome for meetings with Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni.
Meanwhile, the First Lady went to the Vatican-owned Bambino Gesu children’s hospital — right next door to the Pontifical North American College, which is where U.S. seminarians in Rome live.
President Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, went to the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic lay movement, for a meeting on combating human trafficking.
The United States and the Vatican have long partnered on anti-trafficking initiatives, a common effort White House officials had said President Trump hoped to discuss with the Pope. The White House also pointed to a shared commitment to promote religious freedom around the world and to end religious persecution.
On the eve of the Pope’s meeting with the President, Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, editor of an influential Italian Jesuit journal, noted that the differences between the two were drawing a lot of attention. However, he wrote, “Francis, the Pope of bridges, wants to speak with any head of state who asks him to because he knows that in crises” like the world faces today “there are not only absolute ‘good guys’ and absolute ‘bad guys.’”
The Pope’s approach, Fr. Spadaro wrote on his blog May 23, is “to meet the major players in the field in order to reason together and to propose to everyone the greatest good, exercising the soft power that seems to me to be the specific trait of his international policy.”
Contributing to this story were Junno Arocho Esteves and Carol Glatz at the Vatican.