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What to expect when President Trump meets Pope Francis

May 23, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
President Trump will meet Pope Francis at the Vatican on Wednesday. Despite the gulf separating them in terms of personality and policies, the pontiff insists he has an open mind about their meeting. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports on what each man stands to gain, potential stumbling blocks and why it matters.

HARI SREENIVASAN: As John just reported, the president landed this evening in Rome, ahead of an audience tomorrow morning with Pope Francis.

Though it is the first meeting between the leaders, they are quite familiar with each other’s opposing views on some major global issues.

Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant is in Rome for us, and sent us this preview.

MALCOLM BRABANT: After the Manchester bomb attack, Italy’s security status remains the same, on high alert. The Vatican is always well-protected, but it’s locked down tighter than usual for the duration of President Trump’s meeting with the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

Despite the gulf separating them in terms of personality and policies, Pope Francis insists he has an open mind.

POPE FRANCIS, Leader of Catholic Church (through interpreter): I never make a judgment about a person without listening to them. I don’t think I should do that.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Massimo Franco, a Vatican expert with Italy’s most respected newspaper, says that President Trump instigated the meeting and has the most to gain.

MASSIMO FRANCO, Corriere della Sera: This meeting is more important for Trump than for the pope, because Trump presently is very weak internally, so he needs a more international reach.

MALCOLM BRABANT: International relations specialist Professor Irene Caratelli goes further.

IRENE CARATELLI, International Relations Specialist: It’s about legitimacy, so he’s looking for a sort of blessing from the pope. He wants to be recognized by all the different figures of the world.

MALCOLM BRABANT: But Father John Wauck, an American speechwriter before he was ordained, says there’s a mutual benefit.

REV. JOHN WAUCK, Catholic Church: The Catholic Church is always interested in its relations with the United States, given the importance of the U.S. on the international political scene, largely because there’s an enormous number of issues in which the Catholic Church can cooperate.

MALCOLM BRABANT: But one potential stumbling block is the history of sharp criticism over a major Trump election pledge.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We must restore integrity and the rule of law at our borders.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: For that reason, we will soon begin the construction of a great, great wall along our southern border.


POPE FRANCIS (through interpreter): A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges is not Christian.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful.

MALCOLM BRABANT: This biography of Pope Francis by veteran Vatican correspondent David Willey portrays the pontiff as a frugal man who abstains from the luxurious trappings of office and tries to maintain contact with the poor, especially refugees.

Last year, after visiting the Greek island of Lesbos, he brought three Syrian families back to Rome.

DAVID WILLEY, Author, “The Promise of Francis”: The pope is very concerned with the situation of refugees all over the world. I don’t think the pope will hesitate to say exactly what he thinks about controversial subjects, particularly about, for example, President Trump’s plan to deport many hundreds of thousands, if not millions of illegal migrants in the United States.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Today, at the Vatican, the pope condemned the barbarity of the terrorist bomb in Manchester. The attack may affect the issues under discussion.

MASSIMO FRANCO: Trump and the pope are against terrorism, of course, but I think that the approach of the pope is more on the causes, on the source of Islamic terrorism. The pope tends to say that it is not Islamic terrorism, but it is terrorists motivated falsely with religious reasons.

REV. JOHN WAUCK: Donald Trump’s statements recently in Saudi Arabia, I think, made him sound quite a bit more like the pope, in other words, emphasizing that this is not a battle between one religion and another, and stressing the need for peace and all. So I think there’s going to be some common ground there. Certainly, there will be common ground on things like human trafficking, maybe less so on the questions of climate change, if that comes up.

MALCOLM BRABANT: According to veteran Vatican watchers, one of the key factors in determining whether or not this meeting has been a success will be its duration. If the meeting ends after about 15 minutes or so, that will be a bad sign, because, they say, it will suggest that Pope Francis has cut the meeting short.

But the experts believe there are strong reasons to lay foundations for the future.

IRENE CARATELLI: I think that Pope Francis is going to meet President Trump, knowing he has the possibility to influence someone who can change history.

DAVID WILLEY: I think that both of them are canny people who realize the advantages of a face-to-face meeting and will — both of them will be absolutely fascinated to see each other in the flesh for the first time.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Most experts doubt that President Trump will change his views substantially in Rome, but they think at least the two men will have a new understanding of each other.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Malcolm Brabant in Rome.