It was all smiles, in public at least, when Trump met Pope Francis at the Vatican
The meeting could provide powerful imagery to Catholic voters back in the United States as well as the possibility for conflict between a president and a pope who have not often seen eye-to-eye
US President Donald Trump met Pope Francis at the Vatican on Wednesday in a keenly-anticipated face-to-face encounter between two world leaders who have clashed repeatedly.
The private audience with the pontiff, which lasted just under half an hour, was preceded by a handshake for the cameras. Smiling broadly, Trump was heard to say “thank you so much,” before commenting, “it is such an honour to be here.”
Francis appeared more serious at the outset but also appeared to be in jovial spirits when the two men emerged after their slightly longer than scheduled chat.
The meeting, arranged at the last minute and squeezed into the 80-year-old pontiff’s diary, came on the third leg of Trump’s first overseas trip as president, which has already taken him to Saudi Arabia and to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Watch: Trump meets Pope Francis
The two men’s often opposite worldviews collided head-on early last year, when Francis was sharply critical of Trump’s campaign pledge to build an impenetrable wall on the Mexican border and his declaration that the United States should turn away Muslim immigrants and refugees.
“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” Francis said then. The pontiff has been a vocal advocate for aiding refugees, particularly those fleeing the violence in Syria, deeming it both a “moral imperative” and “Christian duty” to help.
Trump has never been one to let an insult, perceived or real, go by without a response, and he made no exception for the world’s best-known religious leader. He called Francis “disgraceful” for doubting his faith.
They also disagree on issues like the death penalty and the arms trade but share a fervent opposition to abortion.
Trump was accompanied for the audience by his wife Melania and daughter Ivanka, both dressed all in black, in keeping with traditional protocol that is no longer always observed by all female dignitaries visiting the Vatican.
The audience took place in the private library of the Apostolic Palace, the official papal residence that Francis does not use, having opted instead for modest lodgings in a Vatican guesthouse.
The pope’s gifts to Trump included a medal by a Roman artist depicting an olive, which is a symbol of peace.
The president responded, “We can use peace.”
The pope also gave the president a signed message of peace along with copies of his three main teaching documents.
The president told the pope he’d be reading them
Immediately after the meeting, the 80-year-old pope was due give his usual midweek address to the faithful St Peter’s square while the Trump couple are given a private tour of the Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Basilica.
Later in the morning, Trump, 70, was to call on Italy’s president and prime minister while Melania visits a children’s hospital and Ivanka discusses migration and people trafficking with members of the St Egidio religious community.
The Trump team is due to fly to Brussels on Wednesday afternoon for meetings with EU and NATO officials before returning to Italy late Thursday for the G7 summit in Sicily on Friday and Saturday.
Francis and Trump’s sparred through the media during the presidential election campaign but the US leader had previously expressed his admiration for the pontiff.
In 2013, he tweeted that “the new pope is a humble man, very much like me, which probably explains why I like him so much!”
Francis had promised earlier this month that he “won’t judge” the former TV personality before hearing him out.
But there is no doubting the differences between them in both substance and style. Trump arrived at the Vatican in a jumbo-sized SUV at the head of a convoy of official cars. Francis prefers modest Fiats and Fords wherever possible.
During his campaign, Trump evoked the spectre of an IS attack on the Vatican, saying that “if and when” it happens “the pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been president”.
Trump’s visit to the Vatican is part of his first trip abroad as president, and follows an initial leg in Saudi Arabia and a visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
“No president has ever visited the homelands and holy sites of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslims faiths all on one trip,” said US National Security Advisor HR McMaster, describing Trump as bringing “a message of tolerance and of hope to billions.”
With his poll numbers at a record low for a new president, Trump may be hoping for a boost after rubbing shoulders with the man who made the cover of Time and Rolling Stone and is credited with bringing many American Catholics back to the Church.
Elected in November last year, Trump has already axed rules protecting tax-funded financing of family planning clinics that offer abortions, and has filled an empty spot on the Supreme Court with an anti-abortion justice.
Human rights groups had urged Francis to raise US use of the death penalty and the issues of torture and targeted assassinations with Trump.
Trump’s stance on these issues “violates the sanctity of life that people of all faiths and none hold so dear,” said Maya Foa, director of the British judicial rights group Reprieve.
Additional reporting by Associated Press