Pope Francis urged US President Donald Trump to be a peacemaker at their highly anticipated first meeting on Wednesday, and Trump promised he would not forget the pontiff’s message.
Trump’s audience with the pontiff, a keenly-anticipated highlight of his first overseas tour, lasted just under half an hour and concluded with both men in apparently jovial mood.
The Vatican described the discussions as “cordial” and stressed the two men’s joint opposition to abortion and shared concern for persecuted Christians in the Middle East, while making no mention of their profound differences on climate change.
Smiling broadly as he first shook hands with the initially grim-faced pope, Trump was heard to say, “it is such an honour to be here.” As he left, he told his host: “Thank you. Thank you. I won’t forget what you said.”
The pope presented Trump with a medallion engraved with an olive tree, the international symbol of peace.
“I give it to you so you can be an instrument of peace,” he said in Spanish. “We can use peace,” Trump replied.
In a lighter moment, Francis referred to Trump’s imposing bulk by asking his wife Melania, “What do you feed him on? Potica?” – a reference to a calorie-laden cake from Slovenia, Melania’s country of birth.
Trump presented the pope with several gifts, including a collection of first editions by Martin Luther King and a bronze sculpture of a flowering lotus.
Francis gave Trump copies of the three major texts he has published as pope, including one on the environment which urges the industrialised world to act urgently on climate change or risk catastrophic consequences for the planet.
Trump, who has threatened to ignore the Paris accords on lowering carbon emissions and described global warming as a hoax, vowed: “Well, I’ll be reading them.”
A Vatican statement highlighted “the joint commitment in favour of life, and freedom of worship and conscience.” Since his November election, Trump has pleased the Catholic hierarchy by axing rules protecting tax-funded financing of family planning clinics that offer abortions.
Melania, who is a Catholic, and daughter Ivanka were both dressed all in black with lace veils, in keeping with traditional protocol that is no longer obligatory for visiting female dignitaries.
The audience took place in the private library of the Apostolic Palace, the lavish papal residence that Francis does not use, having opted instead for modest lodgings in a guesthouse for visiting clerics.
Afterwards, the Trumps were given a private tour of the Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Basilica and Donald called on Italy’s president and prime minister.
Melania visited a children’s hospital and Ivanka met members of the St Egidio religious community. Team Trump team flies to Brussels on Wednesday afternoon for meetings with EU and NATO officials before returning to Italy for the G7 summit in Sicily on Friday and Saturday.
Trump’s Vatican visit was the third leg of his overseas trip, after stops in Saudi Arabia and 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.”
The high-profile trip has temporarily diverted attention from Trump’s domestic pressures over alleged campaign collusion with Russia.
With his poll numbers at a record low, he will be hoping for a boost after rubbing shoulders with the popular pope.