Trump seeking to meet with Pope Francis in May

Vatican City — U.S. President Donald Trump is seeking to meet with Pope Francis when he travels to Italy in May for a summit of G7 leaders.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters at his daily briefing Wednesday that the administration “will be reaching out to the Vatican to see if an audience with the pope can be accommodated.”

“We would be honored to have an audience with his holiness,” said Spicer.

Trump is scheduled to participate in a G7 summit in Taormina, Sicily May 26-27. While it is traditional for U.S. presidents to visit the pope on trips to Italy, earlier reports had indicated Trump was not seeking a meeting with Francis.

One such report from the Reuters news agency April 11 cited U.S. and Vatican diplomats who said they were surprised at the apparent unusual omission in the president’s travel schedule.

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke told AFP Wednesday that the Vatican had not received a request from the U.S. administration. “As of the end of last week we had not had an official request for an audience but for sure we would welcome it,” he said.

World leaders normally make requests to meet the pope with months of advance notice, and are usually accommodated, barring planned papal travel or other logistical issues. The omission of a meeting on Trump’s May travel schedule has led to speculation that the president was avoiding an encounter because of the two leaders’ differing worldviews.

The pope and president famously had a somewhat tense exchange in February 2016, while Trump was campaigning to become the Republican Party’s nominee.

In advance of Francis’ trip to Mexico that month, Trump criticized Francis as “a very political person” because the pontiff was preparing to celebrate a public Mass on the southern side of the U.S.-Mexico border.

When the pope was asked about that remark and Trump’s plans to build wall along the entire border during a press conference on the flight back to Rome, 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.” 

Francis has also made protecting the environment a central focus of his papacy, writing an encyclical in 2015, Laudato Si’, that partly focused on the need to confront climate change.

Trump has appointed an EPA administrator who questions the wide scientific consensus about climate change and signed an executive order in March that withdrew a wide array of Obama-era environmental protections.

The first president to meet a pope at the Vatican was Woodrow Wilson, who met Pope Benedict XV in 1919. Every president since Dwight Eisenhower has made the trip.

Should Trump and Francis have a meeting in May, little information will likely be made available to the public about their discussions. The Vatican normally releases only brief descriptions about the pope’s meetings with world leaders, outlining very broad topic areas that were part of the conversations.

Focus among journalists is normally given to the length of the encounters, with meetings that reach beyond twenty or thirty minutes considered unusual. There is also normally a chance to note the demeanor of the leaders as they exchange gifts with one another.

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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