Pope Francis poses with choir members during his general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Feb. 1. He will meet with President Trump in May. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis and President Donald Trump are expected to have their first meeting at the end of May, an encounter that will bring together two of the most prominent figures on the world stage. According to sources here in Rome, the two will see each other when the president travels to Italy for a G7 meeting of Western leaders on the island of Sicily on May 26.
A meeting at this time is not just logistically sensible, insiders at the Vatican say, but would also follow the example of Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, who both had their first meetings with pontiffs when in Italy for G8 summits.
Whenever it takes place, the meeting between Francis and President Trump will be fascinating to watch given their differing global agendas. On the one hand, the pope has become a widely viewed figurehead of the internationally focused global order. President Trump, meanwhile, has struck a different tone, emphasizing “America first,” and his policy on immigration has brought criticism from church leaders.
A key figure in helping bridge this divide will be the next American ambassador to the Vatican, a post that is expected to be announced soon. Whoever it is will take up residence in the Villa Richardson, situated on the top of the Janiculum Hill in Rome. It’s a picturesque residence, which, with its large terrace overlooking fountains and manicured gardens, makes it an ideal place for entertaining.
That should help with some of the diplomatic heavy-lifting the job will require; and the next ambassador will need to have the ear of the president.
While Francis is fundamentally a pastor and the president a politician, populists are renowned for dividing opinion because they challenge the established ways of doing things. The opposition to the pope — which largely comes from a vocal minority — spilled out into the streets of Rome on Feb. 4 when anti-Francis posters were plastered around the city’s walls. They showed a stern looking Francis and criticized him for his recent actions with respect to the governance of the Order of Malta, an ancient Catholic order that has been embroiled in a public spat with the Vatican.
The same day, the pope sought to draw a line under the two-month-long dispute by appointing a special delegate to oversee a “spiritual renewal” of the order. This is Archbishop Giovanni Becciu, one of Francis’ closest aides, and he will be responsible for dealing with the aftermath of the sacking of Albrecht von Boeselager, a senior German knight accused of overseeing the distribution of condoms in Myanmar and parts of Africa by aid agencies working with Malteser International, the order’s humanitarian relief agency.
Von Boeselager, whose father Philippe was involved in the Valkyrie plot to assassinate Hitler, was fired by the grand master, Matthew Festing, and Cardinal Raymond Burke, the order’s patron, who has also been an outspoken critic of Francis. Both claimed that Von Boeselager’s dismissal was desired by the Holy See — but the Vatican disputed this and launched an inquiry into the matter.
The pope had been reluctant to get involved in the affairs of the 11th-century order, which, thanks to its history, is a sovereign entity enjoying diplomatic relations with more than 100 countries worldwide.
But beyond the finer points of chivalry and sovereignty, this was a proxy battle between the pope’s desire for a more compassionate Catholicism and those who set a premium on following the rules. When faced with the condom-distribution issue, Francis called for the matter to be resolved through dialogue rather than firing anyone. But the resignation of Festing and the decisive action taken by Francis shows just how determined he is to implement reform.
These reforms are not quick-fix solutions. Father Antonio Spadaro, a Jesuit priest who is close to Francis, described this papacy as being focused on seeds rather than trees.
“It’s easy to cut a tree,” he says. “It’s impossible to stop a silent growing forest.”
What this pope is trying to do is set the course of the church, to make it merciful, outward looking and responsive to the needs of humanity. It is about a pastoral conversion that touches every aspect of Catholic life, a process that will take time but one that polls say has the support of many ordinary Catholics.