The AP Television Rome bureau team is getting ready for a big meeting coming up this Wednesday with two of the most compelling figures on the world stage – Pope Francis and US President Donald Trump.
Trump is scheduled to meet the Pope at the Vatican Wednesday morning at 8:30am. His motorcade will pull into the San Damaso Courtyard where he will be formally greeted by a lineup of Vatican Gentlemen in tailcoats laden with medallions and Monsignors with fuchsia caps and matching waistbands wrapped around black cassocks (no women in that lineup). A group of Swiss Guards in red plumed helmets will then escort Trump through the Apostolic Palace to the Pope’s study.
When they sit down inside the Pope’s office, on one side of the table there will be the clever Jesuit, 80-year-old Pope Francis, dressed in white. This is the man who has taken the church to the peripheries, who embraces the poor, the sick, the homeless, migrants and the disabled. He is the man who chooses humility and simplicity over arrogance and luxury. He refused the Papal apartments for a simple room in a Vatican residence and meals in the common dining room. He eschewed the elegant papal robes –from the red shoes to the ermine trimmed capes used by his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI– in favor of a simple, cheap white cassock and black shoes.
Across from him will be the 70-year-old millionaire businessman President, a thin-skinned, impulsive leader who stunned the American establishment with his upset election victory. He is the man who won the vote of working class Americans by promising a new economic nationalism. He believes in building walls, keeping out migrants, and giving jobs back to Americans. He has revolutionized communication; skewering the mainstream media and reaching out to the public through his favorite form of social media, Twitter. He challenges the establishment, defies convention, and dominates the news. Until recently he has been living in an opulent penthouse apartment in New York decorated with 24karat gold and marble to look like Louis XIV’s Versailles.
A clash of the Titans? The Pope versus the Anti-Pope? Trump versus the Anti-Trump? Last week a mural appeared on a wall near the Vatican showing a Donald Trump with devil’s horns and red cape embracing a Pope Francis with a halo.
I feel I had a front row seat to the first tangle between these two men when I covered Pope Francis’ visit to Mexico in February 2016. I was among a small group of journalists, photographers and camerapersons who were taken to the point along the Mexican/US border in Cuidad Juarez and watched as Pope Francis prayed before an enormous cross along the border fence. He laid down a bouquet of white flowers for those who have lost their lives trying to cross the border. In a Mass following his visit to the wall he decried the violence and suffering that migrants must endure.
(see blog post: “Fences, Barbed Wire, and Walls – In Juarez with Pope Francis”)
Across the border in the US, throughout the campaign, candidate Donald Trump was singing a different tune. “We will build a great wall along the southern border. And Mexico will pay for the wall. 100 percent….On day one, we will begin working on an impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful southern border wall,” he told a wildly enthusiastic crowd in Phoenix Arizona.
It came as the most obvious question for a journalist traveling on the Papal plane flying back from Mexico to Rome to ask the Pope what he thought of Donald Trump’s plans to build a wall. The Pope responded, “a person who only thinks about making walls again and again, and not making bridges, is not a Christian.”
Trump shot back two days later with, “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful.”
I was covering Pope Francis when he visited Israel and the Palestinian Territories. He made an unscheduled stop at the barrier the Israelis have built and stood silently and prayed his hand resting on the wall. Pope Francis does not like walls.
(see blog post: Touching the Walls – Pope Francis in the Middle East)
On questions of walls and bridges, migrants and migration the two men clearly do not see eye to eye.
Pope Francis flew to the island of Lesbos in Greece in 2016 and brought back 12 Muslim Syrian refugees on the Papal plane to Italy. One of President Trump’s first actions in office was to sign a travel ban blocking migrants from six Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.
But it is not only on migration where the two differ.
The Pope’s most influential encyclical, Laudato Si, was a clarion call for the world to combat climate change. He demanded a “bold cultural revolution” denounced “compulsive consumerism” and wrote, “the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor…”
President Trump is less worried about mother earth and more about American jobs. He has threatened to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, rolled back Obama administration environmental policies, and reversed a ban on coal mining.
The two men come from opposite extremes politically and stylistically but they do have a few things in common. Donald Trump is a populist who has thumbed his nose at the American establishment. Just months after his election, Time Magazine declared Pope Francis “The People’s Pope” for his closeness to the common man.
On the day of his election Donald Trump stood on the steps of the Capitol and before four former presidents said “for too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.” He promised to give the power back to the American people.
Similarly, in his first Christmas address to the Vatican Curia, Pope Francis stood up before a large group of Cardinals and Bishops and mercilessly listed their “15 ailments” as they sat in horrified silence. Among the illnesses “spiritual alzheimer’s”, publicity seeking, and “terrorism of gossip”.
Donald Trump clearly feels much happier delivering a speech to a room full of blue- collar workers than speaking to the press in Washington. Likewise, Pope Francis clearly enjoys kissing babies and greeting the faithful during his weekly audience more than chatting up curial cardinals.
Another area of common ground is the question of social issues, particularly abortion. Trump is a supporter of the longstanding church position against abortion.
Both men are also pragmatic. Trump is reeling from scandals back home with his dismissal of FBI director James Comey and Russiagate. There is a huge Catholic population in the United States and a photo-opportunity with the Pope could give him a boost. Likewise, the Pope could gain from getting the ear of one of the most powerful men on the earth.
On the return from his recent trip to Fatima, Portugal the Pope told reporters, “I never make a judgment about a person without hearing him out.” He said he would use the meeting to talk with President Trump about working for peace.
Unfortunately, I won’t be in Rome to cover the Pope’s meeting with Trump. I will be on a plane headed for Taormina, Sicily where I will be covering the G7 Summit next Friday and Saturday. Just think, in one small Sicilian town we will have Donald Trump, Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, Theresa May, Justin Trudeau, Shinzo Abe, and Paolo Gentiloni. Yikes, we will be busy! More on that later.