It’s hard to imagine a meeting between Pope Francis and Donald J. Trump going better than it did on May 23. A warm reception. Respect and humility. The president seemed uncharacteristically somewhat speechless after the private half-hour encounter the two had after all the on-camera greetings. And, after some rosary blessing and apparent prayer — including in front of a stature of the Blessed Mother — we learned that the First Lady of the United States is Catholic.
As much of the media was expecting — maybe even clamoring for — a clash of rivals, what they got was a warm reception where the often bombastic and blunt Trump seemed subdued, respectful and even humble.
For anyone who had been paying attention, the pope made clear his posture on the plane ride back from his trip to the Marian Shrine in Fatima, in Portugal, just a week or so before. He said: “I never make a judgment about people without hearing them first. It is something I feel I should not do. When we speak to each other, things will come out. I will say what I think; he will say what he thinks. But I have never, ever, wanted to make a judgment without hearing the person.”
He added, “There are always doors that are not closed. We have to find doors that are at least a little open, in order to go in and speak about things we have in common and go forward. Step by step. … Respect for the other, saying what we think, but with respect, walking together. … Someone sees things in a certain way: say so, be honest in what each of us thinks.” This is pretty much what he’s been modeling as pope during unsettling times.
And he seemed to drop another hint just two weekdays before the meeting, when he talked, in a morning homily, about the dangers of ideology and how to operate in such politicized times. He almost seemed to be pointing to the upsides of populism.
He was preaching about the Gospel and discipleship but it would be foolish to not see the application in the broader world today, which is where, in fact, most Christians are called to live. He said:
“But there were always people who without any commission go out to disturb the Christian community with speeches that upset souls: ‘Eh, no, someone who says that is a heretic, you can’t say this, or that; this is the doctrine of the Church.’ And they are fanatics of things that are not clear, like those fanatics who go there sowing weeds in order to divide the Christian community. And this is the problem: when the doctrine of the Church, that which comes from the Gospel, that which the Holy Spirit inspires — because Jesus said, ‘He will teach us and remind you of all that I have taught’ — [when] that doctrine becomes an ideology. And this is the great error of those people.”
You see it today, how the Word of the Lord can be manipulated and be used to justify political positions, even with which to bludgeon people.
About populism, the media tend to focus on the downsides. And not without reason. It’s dangerous to invoke Hitler, but that’s a direction and danger and so many lesser incremental evils. But the refreshing bit of it is what Uber drivers and waiters and a rainbow coalition of people from all walks of life had been telling me throughout the election, making me fairly certain President Trump was not only plausible but even likely: He does not owe anyone, he is not a politician so he will do things differently. He is not a party guy. He is not an ideologue. This may mean that we don’t actually know what he believes, but it also means that he might just be open to listening in ways that people who have been trained in the traditional structures that breed politicians are not, constitutionally cannot, it often seems. Watching people prudently navigate this — the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops isn’t a bad example thus far — could be instructive about working in uncertain environments — really, all of life — and creative coalition-building. More to come — on immigration and health care and whole host of things still, we pray — but there have been no early misfires blowing up and bridges to cooperation.
We may never know what really was fully discussed during the Trump-Francis meeting — aside from human life and religious liberty and stewardship, as statements stemming from the meeting acknowledged from both the Holy See and the White House — but some of the images coming out of it were remarkably refreshing in this way that the pope not only seemed to be pointing to in that Friday homily but does so often as he urges people out of lukewarmness and the living of double lives as professed Christians who don’t quite act the part, and certainly don’t look like beacons of joy and love. Yes, there was the pope and the president. The first lady with a rosary in hand. The president and Mrs. Trump facing “The Last Judgment,” quite literally, Michelangelo’s creation on the wall of the Sistine Chapel.
And there was Melania Trump, too, visiting a children’s hospital, praying before a statue to the Blessed Mother there. These were tender moments. These were moments that remind us to pray for our leaders. These were opportunities for the First Family to pray together. Even to have time together, as the president and the first lady have been living in different cities as their son completes his school year.
I am not breaking news to you in writing that we live as a time when people are on edge. And the meeting between the pope and the president was something else. It pointing to peace and perseverance in pursuit of the protection of human life and respect for its inherent dignity, as these things tend to. It also was resplendent in homage to not just the existence of the supernatural in the world but its beauty. Making America Great Again could never just be about man’s designs but an acknowledgement of something more, something to live and die for.
Persecuted Christians around the world, and specifically in the Middle East region, the cradle of Christianity was reportedly part of that religious-liberty conversation. The pope has been one of the lone voices on the international stage pointing to the fact that there are more Christian martyrs today in the world than there were in the first days of Christianity. Besides it only being right and just that they should be able to continue to live in their homeland. But we also need them there, any commitment to peace wants them as the leaven they are in this world.
This, too, Pope Francis talked about before the Trump visit. As Vatican Radio wrote up his Monday homily in translation, he said:
The pope concluded his homily saying that a Church without martyrs breeds distrust; a Church that doesn’t take risks breeds distrust; a Church that is afraid of proclaiming Jesus Christ and of chasing out demons, idols and the lord of money is not Christ’s Church.
“Let us ask the Lord for the grace for renewed vigor in faith and conversion from a lukewarm way of life so we are able to make the joyful proclamation that Jesus is the Lord,” he said.
And I’ll give the president credit for recognizing the persecution of Christians by the so-called Islamic State and throughout the world on a whole new power of the bully pulpit kind of level. It was interesting, too, to see Cardinal Turkson tweet on the same day as the Trump-Francis meeting: “Pope Francis & Pres Trump reach out to Islam-world to exorcise it of rel. Violence. One offers peace of dialogue, the other security of arms.”
Catholic made a different in President Trump’s election. The pope seems to have made an impression on him. The urgent work of Catholics would be both to pray for him with a new urgency and for those in the field of public policy to take Church teaching seriously in their work. This may have the most transformative influence, too, on policy and on souls. Including of people in power.
The president walked away with a copy of Laudato Si, the pope’s encyclical on stewardship of creation. If we all saw politics through the lens of gratitude, we might get something accomplished. If Donald Trump finds it compelling, we might just have the opportunities of our civic lives before us just now.