Trump will make his first trip abroad as president this month, with stops in Saudi Arabia, Israel, Italy and Belgium. The president will arrive in Rome after visiting the Middle East in an attempt to highlight his promises to defeat the self-fashioned Islamic State and bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
From Rome, Trump will travel to Brussels for a NATO summit and then to Sicily for a meeting of the Group of Seven economic powers.
As of April, the White House had not approached the Holy See for an audience with the pope during Trump’s trip. But on Thursday the Vatican confirmed that the leaders would be meeting at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, May 24 in the Apostolic Palace.
It’s an unusual day and a strangely early time for a head of state to meet the pope, Reuters noted. The pontiff typically holds a weekly general audience on Wednesday mornings, and senior Vatican sources told Reuters the meeting with the president had to be squeezed in before that.
It seems Trump had to squeeze meeting the pope into his schedule, too. Over the weekend the pope told reporters aboard the plane returning from a trip to Egypt that he wasn’t aware of any request from Trump for a meeting. He reiterated the policy that a pope meets with any head of state who asks for a private audience.
President Obama met Pope Francis twice ― once at the Vatican in 2014 and also during the pontiff’s trip to the United States in 2015. Obama also met with Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, at the Vatican in 2009.
If there’s reluctance on either Trump’s or Francis’s side for the meeting, it wouldn’t be surprising. The pair hold diametrically opposing views on a number of key issues, including immigration policy and climate change. During Trump’s campaign for president, the pontiff criticized the Republican candidate’s plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Speaking aboard his papal plane in February of last year, the pope was asked about Trump’s proposal. He told reporters: “A person who only thinks about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”
Francis stressed that he wasn’t trying to tell Americans how to vote. “I am not going to get involved in that,” he said. But he added: “I would only say that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that.”
Trump posted a long response on his personal Facebook page later that day in an attempt to intimidate the Catholic leader. “If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS’s ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the Pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been President because this would not have happened,” he wrote.
In his first official telegram to Trump in January, Francis said: “Under your leadership, may America’s stature continue to be measured above all by its concern for the poor, the outcast and those in need.”