May 23, 2017, Tuesday

Donald Trump to meet Pope Francis in the morning…

And so, in the end, US President Donald Trump and Pope Francis will meet in the morning in the Vatican, at 8:30 a.m., Rome time.

(Below, US President Donald Trump and his wife, Melania, arriving in Rome today, May 23; both will meet tomorrow morning with Pope Francis, Melania briefly, and Trump for about 45 minutes of private discussions)


For Francis, it will be just after his 7 a.m. morning Mass and breakfast.

Security is incredibly tight. For the Romans, ordinary life has been disrupted.

Here are links to two interesting videos, both short, evidently shot by an ordinary Roman, of the Trump motorcade rolling into Rome today; the number of large black vehicles is almost unbelievable… link and link)

But what will the two men say?

What will be the importance of the meeting?

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(continued from above)

What the world’s media is saying about the likely content of the meeting seems to me unlikely to be the actual content of the meeting.

Most observers are saying that the meeting will be about:

(1) migration and immigration

(2) the environment

(3) the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, including the situation in Syria and Iraq, and what to do about it

Many people have suggested that the meeting may be tense and unproductive because the Pope and Trump are said to disagree profoundly on these matters (for example, the Pope has famously described Trump’s proposed policies to control illegal immigration into the United States as “un-Christian,” and the Vatican has been critical of US policy in Syria and Iraq).

But I suspect these topics will not be the central topics of the upcoming Trump-Pope meeting.

Nor will they be the central topics of the meetings between Trump and the top two geopolitical thinkers of the Vatican, the Italian Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, and the British Archbishop Deputy Secretary of State Paul Richard Gallagher, both of whom will meet with Trump after he finishes his meeting with the Pope. (Note: I have met and spoken with Parolin and Gallagher on a number of occasions.)

I am of the opinion, then, that the three meetings (first with the Pope, then with Parolin, then with Gallagher) will be about other important and difficult challenges facing the world today:

(1) Russia, Ukraine, and Crimea

(2) China, North Korea and the Southeast Asian region

(3) Venezuela, which seems to be descending into chaos, and also the entire problem of the relationship of Latin America to the United States and Canada

(4) Israel and Palestine

I think the issues of immigration, the environment, and Christian persecution will likely be discussed, yes, but as a sort of general context inside of which the four pressing issues mentioned above will be explored.

The context of this meeting at the Vatican (a center of the Christian world), during the first foreign trip of the new president, after he visited Saudi Arabia (a center of the Muslim world) and Israel (center of the Jewish world), suggests that some sort of “global vision” (perhaps crafted by his advisors) based on the idea of a collaboration between the three monotheistic religions may be animating the Trump agenda.

My hope is that, out of the meeting, may come some “agreements in principle” between the world’s most powerful temporal leader (Trump) and its most powerful moral and spiritual authority (Francis, Vicar of Christ, Successor of Peter, head of the 1.2 billion strong and 2,000-year-old Catholic Church).

Gerard O’Connell, a Vatican journalist who writes for the Jesuit magazine America and who knows Pope Francis well (and also an old friend of and contributor to the magazine I edit, Inside the Vatican) wrote this today: “Vatican officials contacted by America, who spoke on condition of anonymity, consider the meeting of the utmost importance given the role of the United States in the world. They expressed happiness that the leader of the globe’s main superpower decided to visit the pope on his first foreign trip, and they seemed quietly confident that the meeting will go well. ‘It will be good. It’s going to be their first encounter, and the hope is that it will start a good relationship, open a channel of communication between the two sides, and send a message to the Catholic Church in the United States,’ a senior Vatican official told America.”

The Vatican diplomacy may well suggest possible avenues to solve the present crises in these regions on the basis of the old ideas of the “concert of nations” and “spheres of influence.”

For example, it might be argued that both Russia and Ukraine have “interests” in Crimea and in eastern Ukraine that are “legitimate” and that, as a consequence, some sort of brokered deal acceptable to all parties, might offer a way forward other than war, diminishing the present conflict.

In short, an ordered and just agreement rather than disorder, conflict and death.

The Churches of the region might offer a religious or “spiritual off-ramp” in a situation that otherwise seems intractable.

And this might be attractive to Trump.

Likewise in China, Korea, and Southeast Asia.

The Jesuit order has a long history of interest in China, and Pope Francis in a Jesuit.

The old dream of the Jesuits was the conversion of China — not the subjugation of that vast, ancient and highly civilized nation, but the full inclusion of China into what the Church has always seen as an unfolding plan of God for humanity’s peace and welfare (the precise outlines of this plan are, of course, a matter for much discussion).

Francis and the Vatican diplomacy recognize well the power of demography. Demography, some political theorists have said, is the most powerful single force in human affairs. And Asia holds more than one half of the population of the world. So the Vatican, the Church, the Pope, are looking toward Asia, toward China, toward India, toward the Philippines, Indonesia, Japan, Vietnam (Parolin is an expert on Vietnam).

Pope Francis would like to visit China, to preach in China, to follow in the footsteps of his great Jesuit predecessor, Father Matteo Ricci.

But to do that, much else must be discussed and agreed upon in advance. So the question of China becomes a central question that Francis might wish to raise with Trump.

Regarding Venezuela, the situation is dramatic. But the overarching issue is the role of the United States in Latin America.

As in a multi-century long process of osmosis, the peoples of Latin America, speaking Spanish, Portuguese (Brazil) and professing the Catholic faith, have pressed up against the United States, a predominantly Protestant, Anglo-Saxon country. The Spanish were in St. Augustine, Florida, in the 1500s, in California and Texas up until the 1800s. And the English-speaking Americans — after acquiring the vast Louisiana Territory from the French — have been in Central and South America, through corporations like the United Fruit Company (banana plantations), and in many other sorts of businesses, and government-sponsored operations, and also in many Protestant Evangelical initiatives, for the past 200 years.

So the cultural-political “membrane” between North and South has always been delicate, permeable, and somewhat fluid: some in a Protestant North America have imagined that they might convert the Catholics of Latin America into Protestants, and have sent missionaries and financial support, with varying degrees of success (Guatemala is now majority Protestant), while at the same time the Latin Americans, traditionally Catholic and Hispanic, have physically immigrated into the North, bringing their faith and culture into the United States, with all the transformations that have inevitably accompanied that immigration. And this process is continuing at this present moment, with the eventual result not yet clear.

In the context of this history, there is too much complexity for the matter to be dealt with in one hour-long meeting, but the need for some “deal” that will bring tranquility and prosperity to millions on both sides of the North-South divide is evident. And Venezuela could be in that process a key test case.

Regarding Israel and the conflict with the Palestinians, O’Connell notes: “Mr. Trump’s arrival at the Vatican will happen directly after his private talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He is meeting with both leaders in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, respectively, to discuss finding a lasting peace solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. It seems highly likely that this issue will be the starting point for his conversations with the pope and senior Vatican officials who have long been desirous to reach that same goal.”

O’Connell further notes: “On the eve of his visit, President Trump nominated Callista Gingrich, wife of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, to be the new U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. The media in the United States reports that when he comes to the Vatican, Mr. Trump wants to talk about human trafficking and religious liberty. President Obama had those same topics on his agenda when he first met Francis, but we now know that they went far beyond them to discuss other very important issues, including the possibility of a U.S.-Cuba rapprochement. Something similar could happen this time.”

So there are many “straws in the wind” suggesting that someone, or many people, are attempting to weave some comprehensive geopolitical agreement, or several partial geopolitical agreements, out of the events and meetings of these days.

There have been no real “leaks” about the agenda of the meeting tomorrow morning between Pope Francis and Donald Trump.

So we do not know what they will say when the meet together, face-to-face, for perhaps as much as one hour.

But wouldn’t it be interesting if we were to receive after the meeting a partial or complete transcript of what is said?

President Trump will be accompanied by a sizable delegation and while the full list of names has not yet been disclosed, sources say it will include his wife, Melania; his daughter Ivanka with her husband Jared Kushner; the national security advisor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster; and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson.

Francis will greet them individually after his private conversation with President Trump has ended, and before the traditional exchange of gifts.

The time of the meeting

Most such meetings between modern Popes and important national presidents last from a minimum of 20 minutes to a maximum of 50 minutes.

But the Vatican has announced a schedule change in the Pope’s daily plans: the regularly scheduled Wednesday General Audience, an occasion when the Pope speaks to anyone who wishes to come to St. Peter’s Square, usually 50,000-75,000 people, will begin not at 10 a.m., but at 10:30 a.m.

“The Vatican has gone out of its way to accommodate President Trump by arranging for him, at very short notice, to have a private audience with the pope at 8:30 on a Wednesday morning,” Irish journalist Gerard O’Connell wrote today. “Normally, Francis holds a public audience in St. Peter’s Square at 10:00 a.m. every Wednesday; before that, at 9:30 a.m., he drives among the faithful in the square. This time, however, the Vatican has announced that the public audience will begin a half-hour later, at 10:30 a.m. That is two hours after Trump arrives in the Vatican, thus allowing plenty of time for his conversations with the pope and his top advisors.”

By this change, we know that the Vatican has intentionally made space to allow the Pope and Trump to meet from 8:30 until 9:30, up to one full hour, and even a bit more if necessary, before the Pope must go down into St. Peter’s Square for the audience.

If the meeting is much shorter than 45 minutes or an hour, well, that would be a bit of a surprise.

Writes O’Connell: “The private conversation between the pope and the president, with the aid of translators, is expected to last somewhere between 30 minutes and one hour. (President Obama’s private talk with Francis lasted 52 minutes.) ‘It is a short time to get to know each other, but a lot of it is chemistry,’ according to a Vatican source who knows well how such audiences go.”

So, most likely, the meeting will be in the neighborhood of 45 minutes, and possibly as long as one hour.

The place of the meeting

The meeting will be in the Apostolic Palace, not in the Domus Santa Marta where the Pope lives, and has been known to receive many guests.

But state leaders are usually received in the Apostolic Palace (this is building that looms up over the side of St. Peter’s Square, the building that the Popes used to live in, on the top floor, in the last rooms on the right, until Francis).

So it makes sense that the meeting be in the Apostolic Palace.

To get to the Apostolic Palace, the president has to come into the Vatican from Italy, which completely surrounds the Vatican City State.

Often in the past, a motorcade would come up the via della Conciliazione, and drive right across St. Peter’s Square, under the Arch of the Bells, around the back of St. Peter’s Basilica.

This time, there was the thought that Trump and his entourage would not enter the Vatican by car, but by…. helicopter! The idea was that four or even more helicopters would land in the Vatican Gardens behind St. Peter’s Basilica, and the president and his delegation would descend from the garden by car. But that plan was discarded, some say because it was felt that the helicopters would disturb the crowds gathering in the Square.

For the same reason — because St. Peter’s Square will be filling with tens of thousands of people for the papal audience — the plan to bring the motorcade through the square was also impossible.

So the plan was made to bring the entourage in from the side entrance — the same entrance that Bernie Sanders walked out of after his brief 5-minute meeting with the Pope a year ago.

“Given that there are normally tens of thousands of pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square for the Wednesday public audience, the Vatican and the U.S. organizers of the visit have agreed that President Trump will not enter the Vatican city-state under the Arch of the Bells that is on the left hand side of St. Peter’s Square,” O’Connell writes. “Instead his motorcade will pass through the Porta del Perugino, near the Domus Santa Marta where Francis resides, and drive behind St. Peter’s Basilica to the Cortile di San Damaso, where he will be saluted by a platoon of Swiss Guards and then escorted to the Second Loggia of the Apostolic Palace for his audience with the pope.”

And so, a number of black vehicles will bring Trump, his family, and his Secretary of State into the Vatican from the Porta del Perugino, down a little hill next to the Domus Santa Marta, where the Pope lives, past the Vatican gas station on the left, around the back of St. Peter’s Basilica, and actually pass below the Sistine Chapel, into the very heart of the Vatican.

And so….

At the center of this historic meeting is the problem of where the world is, of where mankind is, in 2017.

The central question is: what are the main trends unfolding which will determine mankind’s future?

And how can those trends be managed, influenced, guided, reformed, so that disasters do not occur, with accompanying great sorrow for the world’s peoples?

In short, this face-to-face meeting between the world’s greatest temporal leader (Trump, president of the United States) and its greatest moral and spiritual leader (Francis, head of the 1.2 billion-strong, 2,000-year-old Catholic Church) is of profound importance as a moment for both men to “take stock” of where the world now is and where it is going, and where it should go.

Why do I say this?

Because in this case it is not a matter of personalities (though personalities are always of key importance in the affairs of men) but of the offices these two men hold.

Whether one likes or dislikes Pope Francis, one must recognize that he has a vision of his role as the Successor of Peter as a pastor to a global flock, to a flock that reaches even beyond the doctrinal and canonical and sacramental borders of the Catholic Church.

There is no other way to explain his actions thus far in his pontificate: words and actions which have angered and worried traditionalists, who deeply fear that he may think he can reject or revise key doctrines of the Christian faith — words and actions which have given hope to some secular humanists, who have imagined with a certain astonished glee precisely the same thing…

Francis conceives of his role in a global sense, in a universal sense.

And that is why the meeting in the morning is so important — because two men of great authority in our world will have the chance to exchange ideas and to see whether, using reason and faith, they can see their way toward policies which will support the hopes of all of us for a world of justice, a world in harmony, a world of ordered liberty, a world of peace…

After bidding farewell to the Pope, Trump, accompanied by some of his top advisors, will be escorted for private talks with two of Francis’ chief advisors: the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and the Secretary for Relations with States, Archbishop Paul Gallagher.

The first lady, Melania, on the other hand, will visit the Bambino Gesù, the largest pediatric hospital and research center in Europe, which is supported by the Vatican and often referred to as “the Pope’s hospital.”

Ivanka Trump will visit the Sant’Egidio lay community to participate in a discussion on human trafficking.

More on all of this after the Pope-Trump meeting tomorrow…



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