Thursday, May 04, 2017

For Pope and POTUS, The Audience Is Set

After months of the kind of hemming and hawing normally reserved for a courtship, it's finally official – the Pope will receive President Trump for a private audience at 8.30 am on Wednesday, 24 May.

Five days after Francis told the traveling press en route from Egypt that no request for a meeting had yet been received from the White House, late-morning leaks from administration officials that the Vatican had been added to the President's schedule for his first overseas tour – a weeklong trip centered on the late-month G7 summit in Sicily – were confirmed by the Holy See shortly before 6pm Rome tonight.

The announcement of the summit coincided with the US' annual National Day of Prayer, which Trump is marking with a Rose Garden ceremony to sign an executive order on religious liberty, its precise contents not yet disclosed. Several prominent Catholic figures were present at the event, which notably began with a prayer from Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, one of Francis' closest US advisers.

Of course, the context of the coming audience arguably makes this meeting the most intensely-awaited Pope-President sitdown of recent times, thanks to a history of direct and prominent clashes that knows no precedent.

Among other sacred cows Trump skewered on his path to the presidency, the New York developer openly slammed Francis in February 2016 after the pontiff – in reference to then-candidate's signature pledge to build a wall along the Mexican border – said that "a person who thinks only of making walls, wherever they might be, and not of building bridges, is not Christian." Within minutes, Trump replied in a statement that "if and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS... I can promise you that the Pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been President because this would not have happened."

While neither succeeded in convincing the other of their respective stance, upon Trump's January inauguration as the 45th Commander-in-Chief – a moment made possible by the Republican's win of a majority among white American Catholics – the rhetoric was muted, yet no less pointed, as the Pope sent a formal message praying that "America’s stature [may] continue to be measured above all by its concern for the poor, the outcast and those in need who, like Lazarus, stand before our door."

In keeping with longstanding custom for visiting heads of state or government, the Holy See noted tonight that the President will engage in more detailed talks with the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and the Vatican's "foreign minister," the Liverpool-born Archbishop Paul Gallagher, following his time with Francis.

Speaking of protocol, the timing of Trump's audience is exceptionally unusual for the Vatican, which serves to underscore Francis' intent for this encounter to take place. Under normal circumstances, a Pope doesn't receive dignitaries until 10am, with the various audiences running until lunch. Along these lines, a similar extraordinary accommodation was made in 2009, when Benedict XVI received then-President Barack Obama at 4.30 in the afternoon for their first meeting (above).

Whatever the timing, though – and as the last two pontiffs have let the once-stringent dress code heavily lapse – one Vatican rule for diplomatic audiences remains ironclad: given Trump's long-standing preference to be joined by his aides for major meetings, in the Pope's house the principal enters the Private Library alone, their spouse and aides only greeted afterward as the event closes with the customary exchange of gifts. (For obvious reasons, the lone exception to the one-on-one rule is the presence of translators.)

Developing – more to come.