VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis welcomed President Trump here Wednesday morning to the cradle of Roman Catholicism, delivering a message of peace even as he stands as the world’s moral counter to the new American president’s nationalist agenda.
The two men met in the pope’s private study for nearly half an hour, joined only by an interpreter, with the pontiff, in his white papal dress and adorned only with a pectoral cross on a chain around his neck, sitting behind a small desk and Trump, in a dark suit and blue striped tie, taking the supplicants seat across from him.
After some initial awkwardness — Trump looked slightly uneasy as he was kept waiting for a few seconds in the Saint Ambrose room before shaking hands with Francis, who was stone-faced at first — the atmosphere soon warmed. The pair appeared to set aside their differences during last year’s campaign, with Trump appearing both presidential and deferential, while the pope, often smiling slightly, seemed to be visually appraising him.
Once Francis rang a bell signaling that the one-on-one discussion had concluded, the pair exchanged official gifts, with the pope presenting Trump a medal by a Roman artist in the shape of an olive tree, the symbol of peace.
“We can use peace,” Trump said.
Francis also offered copies of his writings on the topics of family, the joy of the gospel and “care of our common home, the environment.”
“Well, I’ll be reading them,” the president said, effusive in his gratitude and saying “than you very much” multiple times.
Trump’s visit to the Vatican capped his quest this week to bridge divides among followers of three of the world’s religions. On his maiden foreign trip as president, Trump addressed a summit of Muslim leaders in Saudi Arabia and met with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Arguably the West’s most influential leaders, Trump and Francis hold divergent worldviews on everything from migrant rights to climate change. Following their private meeting, Trump appeared gracious for his audience with Francis.
“Thank you,” the president said, shaking hands with the pontiff. “Thank you. I won’t forget what you said.”
First lady Melania Trump, in a black dress with a black veil, was also greeted by the Pope and engaged in a brief conversation. She appeared more animated than she has during the earlier parts of the trip, when she gazed into the distance without expression while her husband was the center of attention.
The first lady smiled and chatted with Francis, who said something to her in English that made her laugh.
“What do you give him to eat, potizza?” Francis asked her, referring to the president and a Slovenian dessert that the pope is said to be fond of.
The first lady, who was born in Slovenia, smiled and repeated “potizza.”
One of the pope’s attendants, a clergyman, gave Melania Trump a small object that appeared to be a rosary, as she was walking away. She turned back and asked the pope to bless it, which he did.
Before departing the Vatican, the Trumps were given a private tour of the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. The president was scheduled to later meet with Italian President Sergio Mattarella at the Quirinal Palace in Rome.
Among the gifts Francis presented to the president was a copy of the pontiff’s 2015 encyclical on the environment and its relationship to social justice. Although it predates Trump’s presidency, the document seemed a message to an administration that has questioned climate change and whose economic policies are centered on profit and growth.
In it, Francis chastised the world’s leading nations for lacking the will to address man-made climate change. “The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world, especially Africa, where a rise in temperature, together with drought, has proved devastating for farming,” he wrote.
He noted the extinction of whole species because of human impact, with plants and animals that “our children will never see, because they have been lost forever.” And he criticized those who believe that economies based on market growth, technological dependence and the accumulation of maximizing profits without considering their effects on humankind. “By itself,” he wrote, “the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion.”
Trump is in the process of deciding whether to uphold the Paris climate change agreement, amid heated debate among his advisers. The agreement is expected to be the subject of discussion between Trump and newly-elected French President Emmanuel Macron and other European leaders when they meet in Brussels later this week.
The Pope also gave Trump a copy of his January 2017 World Day of Peace message, saying “I signed it personally for you.”
“Ooh,” Trump commented. “That’s so beautiful.”
The message noted that while the last century was marked by two world wars, “today, sadly, we find ourselves engaged in a horrifying world war fought piecemeal,” including “the abuses suffered by migrants and victims of human trafficking; and the devastation of the environment.” Echoing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he called for increased engagement in “active and creative nonviolence.”
Trump gifted Francis a first-edition set of King’s five books, which were custom-bound and accented with gold hand-tooling. Francis cited King’s march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in his 2015 address to a joint session of Congress.
“These are books from Martin Luther King,” Trump said. “I think you will enjoy them.”
The president also presented a hand-made bronze sculpture created by Geoffrey Smith, an artist from Florida, and titled “Rising Above,” designed to evoke the values of unity and resilience.
Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, who also wore a black dress and veil, and her husband, Jared Kushner, a senior White House adviser, also met the pope.
In a separate room in the Apostolic Palace, Trump introduced members of his family to Francis, and they shook the pontiff’s hand. The Americans included Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, State Department official Brian Hook, as well as three longtime aides who are close to the president: Hope Hicks, his communications adviser; Dan Scavino, who manages his Twitter account; and Keith Schiller, his former bodyguard who now directs Oval Office operations.
The pope distributed small white boxes, containing rosaries, to each member of the delegation, handing them out personally from a tray carried by a trailing aide.
Photographs of the pontiff with Trump’s immediate family were taken, followed by pictures of him with the entire delegation.
In a high profile exchange last year, Trump and Francis traded barbs. Trump’s proposal to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border was a rallying cry for his campaign. The pope suggested that a person who wants to build walls instead of bridges is “not Christian,” and Trump replied by calling any religious leader who would say such thing “disgraceful.”
Nevertheless, Vatican officials — while seeking to play down a meeting that many have speculated could be either be very diplomatic or easily run off script — have described Wednesday’s meeting as an opportunity for the U.S. president and the head of the Roman Catholic Church to find common ground.
“It’s in nobody’s interest to try to win arguments,” said a senior Vatican official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview the meeting. “The Holy See and the U.S. government will have their differences — as they always do — but there’s a whole range of issues they can work together on, and this kind of meeting can serve to get them off to a good start.”
Trump was “honored to go and meet the pope,” adding that he “has a lot of respect” for Francis, a senior administration official told reporters Tuesday aboard Air Force One, as the president flew to Rome from Israel.
Underscoring the differences in the two men, Trump’s administration on Tuesday unveiled a budget that deeply cuts assistance to the poor. Francis, meanwhile, spent Tuesday commemorating the Rev. Oscar Romero, a Salvadoran archbishop gunned down by right wing death squads and who championed social justice and the rights of the poor.
“Think of the Blessed Romero [and] what happened to him for having told the truth,” Francis said at his Tuesday morning mass at his residence, Santa Clara House. “And so many others in the history of the Church, even here in Europe. Why? Because the evil spirit prefers a tranquil, risk-free Church, a business-like Church, a comfortable and lukewarm Church.”
Ahead of Trump’s visit to the Italian capital, a few dozen anti-Trump protestors — whose numbers were almost matches by journalists and police — picketed Tuesday evening in the city’s Piazza Bologna.
The demonstration was organized by Americans living in Rome, but also drew in a few locals, including Michele Renda, 39, a lawyer who held up a sign reading “Rome Resists” and chanted slogans like “No Trump, No KKK, No Fascists in the USA.”
“I am not a Catholic, but this pope has stood up for migrant rights, for the poor, for everything Trump doesn’t,” Renda said. “ I think it’s outrageous that Trump is coming for the photo with the pope, to try to prove he is something he is not.”
“We in Italy, in Europe, looked up to the United States for its democracy,” he continued. “But not with Trump. Not with what he stands for.”
Stefano Pitrelli in Vatican City contributed to this report.