When Trump meets Francis, I'd like to be a fly on the wall

 |  NCR Today

I'd sure like to be a fly on the wall of the Apostolic Palace May 24 when U.S. President Donald Trump meets Pope Francis. In Twitter-land, they've been portrayed as kind of virtual nemeses, which makes me wonder how they'll get along in flesh and blood. 

When he reported the news of the meeting, Vatican correspondent Josh McElwee wrote (rather politely, I thought): "Francis and Trump are known to have divergent opinions on a number of issues" and "The two famously had a somewhat tense exchange in February 2016, while Trump was campaigning to become the Republican Party's nominee."

Trump had criticized Francis as "a very political person" after the Vatican announced that during the pope's visit to Mexico in February 2016 that Francis would celebrate a public Mass on the southern side of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Later, when the pope was asked about that remark and Trump's plans to build wall along the border Francis questioned Trump's Christianity, saying: "A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges is not Christian."

Since then, it has emerged that the pope and the president have very different views on a number of issues, not just immigration and refugees but climate change, nuclear arms and economic development, so the May 24 meeting could be quite interesting. 

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The United States and the global Catholic church are in some ways "parallel empires," says church historian Massimo Faggioli. "The state of their relationship says something about the state of international affairs."

"Given the unprecedented exchanges between Trump and Francis in the past year, this meeting will be an opportunity to clarify their positions and most importantly their willingness to talk," Faggioli said in a statement released today through his university, Villanova. 

Faggioli can't guess what the outcome of the meeting may be. "The two [the pope and the president] are very different, with very different worldviews, and they do not mince words." But he also notes that "the tension between the White House and the Vatican is not personal, it is about issues."

Faggioli thinks that if pope and the president can find common ground, it might be found in Syria, which he called "the biggest international crisis for the Vatican today."

Francis, by his own admission, isn't too well acquainted with the United States. But when he visited the USA in 2015, he proved he has an able staff and that he is a quick learner. 

Faggioli says "given the personality of the president and of those who shape his foreign policy — people with a background in hard power (the military and CEOs from the business world)," it is not clear who will prepare Trump for the visit. 

"The Vatican is about soft power, and this is a language very few people speak in Trump's White House."

Like I said, I'd love to be fly on that wall. 

[Dennis Coday is NCR editor. dcoday@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter @dcoday.]

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