Trump meets the Pope: 5 things to watch for

U.S. President Donald Trump meets Pope Francis. How long their meeting lasts, what diplomatic gifts they’ll exchange and whether they’ll discuss their divergent outlooks will be closely watched.

Known for his humility, Pope Francis seeks common ground and 'does not appreciate ostentatious gifts'

U.S. President Donald Trump will meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Wednesday. The two leaders, who have had opposing political views, will have a private meeting at the papal library. (Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court, Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)

It's not the White House, the penthouse suite of Trump Tower or the Mar-a-Lago estate, but the 15th-century Apostolic Palace that serves as the Vatican's crux of Catholic power projects a grandeur that Donald Trump should appreciate when he arrives there on Wednesday.

The first papal visit by a U.S. president known for his wealth and his ostentatious taste brings Trump before a no-frills pontiff who urges humility and shuns material excess. Pope Francis is the first pontiff in 110 years to reject residency in the fresco-adorned palace, living instead in a modest Vatican guest suite.

"Francis is five years in his papacy and is an expert in terms of dealing with difficult issues around the world," says Father Michael Russo, an expert on the papacy. "I don't think you can call it a spiritual meeting; it's a diplomatic ritual. But it's important as, needless to say, the Pope and Donald Trump seem to present very different views on how to approach the world."

How long their meeting in the papal library lasts, what diplomatic gifts they'll exchange and whether they'll discuss their divergent outlooks on climate change and a proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall will be closely watched. And if there are any disagreements, will the president tweet about it?

Here are some things to watch for:

Vatican might impress even Trump

New recruits of the Vatican's elite Swiss Guard, holding long pole weapons known as halberds, stand at attention during the swearing-in ceremony at the Vatican in 2013. (Tony Gentile/Reuters)

Vatican correspondent Joshua McElwee, who has followed the Pope since 2014 for the National Catholic Reporter, says Trump's entourage will first be led into the Medieval-style Court of San Damaso at the Vatican. McElwee expects even the president to be impressed by the majesty of the Holy See's inner workings.

"They'll pass Swiss Guards with long pole weapons, standing at attention, then he'll be led from room to room with gorgeous Renaissance frescos and beautiful construction."

The first handshakes and pleasantries will occur in the antechamber of the papal library, McElwee says, before Trump and Francis take seats at a wooden desk in the library. Journalists will be permitted in the room for only a few moments before the private conversation begins. The two heads of state will talk alone, with only one translator present.

Length of meeting matters

When U.S. President Barack Obama met with Pope Francis at the Vatican in 2014, the two leaders spoke for nearly an hour. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

Typical meetings last about 20 to 30 minutes.

"It depends on how the leaders get along, how much they have to talk about," McElwee says, noting that former president Barack Obama's 50-minute audience with Francis in March 2014 was considered a clear indication of a "good working relationship."

In contrast, he says, former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper had a 10-minute long meeting with the Pope when he came in 2015.

Reporters will almost certainly be logging the time for Trump's dialogue. Details are typically sparse, though Russo will be interested to see whether the president tweets "his own characterization of the private conversation." If Francis takes exception to the description, he says, "Does the Pope then come out and set the record straight? Nobody knows."

Among the topics Trump plans to discuss are religious freedom, working with the Catholic Church on humanitarian missions and human trafficking, national security adviser H.R. McMaster said.

Don't expect disputes

Pope Francis shares a laugh with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a private audience at the Vatican in 2013. As he prepares for a meeting with Trump, Francis has said he seeks open doors and common ground with world leaders. (Gregorio Borgia/Reuters)

The president and the Pope have clashed on political matters, but Francis, who has advocated more compassion for refugees, told reporters this month he embraces opportunities to seek common ground.

"There are always doors that are not closed. We need to find the doors that are at least partly open, go in and talk about things we have in common and go forward, step by step," Francis said.

Trump, as with all heads of state who visit the Vatican, can expect to receive copies of Francis's three major papal writings — Evangelii Gaudium, Laudato Si' and Amoris Laetitia, the last of which argues for environmental stewardship.

During the U.S. election campaign, the Pope implored world leaders not to "delay" action on environmental pacts, while Trump has threatened to withdraw from the Paris climate deal. 

Francis said Trump was "not Christian" for wanting to build a U.S.-Mexico border wall. Trump shot back that the Pope's words were "disgraceful" and mused that "if and when" the Vatican were attacked by ISIS, "the Pope would have only wished and prayed" for a Trump presidency.

"Obviously, they have major differences on migration, on the environmental crisis, on human dignity issues," McElwee says. "But the Pope has spoken about wanting to build a 'culture of encounters,' of wanting to find areas of agreement."

As far as gifts go, it's the thought that counts

Italian Soccer Federation president Carlo Tavecchio gives Pope Francis a signed soccer ball as a gift in May 2017. Trump will likely be participating in a gift exchange when he meets with Francis. (L'Osservatore Romano/Associated Press)

Meaningful gift-giving will play well with the Pope, who seems to prefer thoughtfulness or creativity over material value.

"The Pope does not appreciate ostentatious gifts," preferring simple offerings, McElwee says. Obama brought seeds from the White House garden, which were later planted at the papal retreat and were seen as "a smart choice."

The Pope, in exchange, usually gives a medallion. Burmese leader and former dissident Aung San Suu Kyi received a bronze medallion depicting a desert turning into bloom, with a specific passage from Isaiah. The image was interpreted as being a message about Myanmar's move towards democratic reform.

There was 'no way around' this visit

Trump and his wife Melania wave as they disembark Air Force One upon arrival at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv on Monday, May 22, 2017, as part of his first overseas trip. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

The audience with the Pope follows Trump's earlier stops this week in Saudi Arabia and Israel, covering the three major Abrahamic religions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

But whether the meeting would even happen was the subject of speculation for weeks. The Vatican held out dates for the White House for an official audience, but Russo says it would have been regarded as a slight if Trump's foreign tour, including a trip to Italy for the G7, somehow skipped the Vatican.

There would have been "no way around" this visit, Russo says.


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong


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