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Pope Francis gives President Trump some homework at their first meeting

VATICAN CITY (RNS) 'I will be reading them,' the president told the pontiff after Francis gave him his encyclical on climate change and other papal writings at their summit meeting Wednesday.

President Trump stands next to Pope Francis during a private audience at the Vatican on May 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

VATICAN CITY (RNS) Donald Trump is known as a climate change skeptic with a short attention span who has said he doesn’t have time to read books.

But Pope Francis is a man of faith who lives in hope, and during the first, highly anticipated meeting between these two world leaders with sharply contrasting visions the pontiff gave the president three lengthy documents, including his landmark encyclical underscoring the perils of global warming.

“I will be reading them,” Trump promised Francis when the pope presented the gifts to the president after 30 minutes of private talks at the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican on Wednesday morning (May 24).

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Francis also gave the president a small sculptured olive tree and told him through the interpreter that it symbolized peace.

“It is my desire that you become an olive tree to construct peace,” the Argentine-born pope said, speaking in his native Spanish through an interpreter.

Trump responded: “We can use peace.”

In a statement issued three hours after the meeting, the Vatican said that the pope and the president stressed areas of agreement, chiefly “the joint commitment in favor of life, and freedom of worship and conscience” — a reference to the administration’s opposition to abortion.

But the pope and his aides, in subsequent diplomatic talks, appeared to press Trump and the U.S. delegation on health care, education and immigration, areas where the Catholic Church holds views that are in stark contrast to those pushed by Trump.

According to the statement, the talks also involved an “exchange of views on various themes relating to international affairs and the promotion of peace in the world through political negotiation and interreligious dialogue, with particular reference to the situation in the Middle East and the protection of Christian communities.”

Pope Francis meets President Trump and first lady Melania Trump during a private audience at the Vatican on May 24, 2017. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Alessandra Tarantino/pool

The president and first lady Melania Trump, his daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, and other members of the U.S. delegation were met by an honor guard of Swiss Guards inside the Apostolic Palace just before 8:30 a.m. after traveling across Rome amid tight security.

The pope looked subdued when they first shook hands as an enthusiastic Trump smiled and said, “Thank you so much” and it was “a very great honor” to be there. The media were then ushered from the room.

When the two leaders emerged they were more relaxed and smiling, and a Vatican statement described the meeting as “cordial.”

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Trump gave the pontiff a box of books written by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whom the pope has cited several times in his speeches, including his address to Congress during his U.S. visit in September 2015.

“I think you will enjoy them,” Trump said.

When the pope met the first lady, who was born in Slovenia, he asked her: “What do you give him to eat, potica?” a reference to a Slovenian pastry. It was not clear if Melania Trump  understood the pope. She replied, “Pizza.”

Meeting later with the Italian prime minister, Trump said of Francis: “He is something. We had a fantastic meeting.”

He also called the audience the “honor of a lifetime” in a tweet later Wednesday and said he left the Vatican “more determined than ever to pursue PEACE in our world.”

Andrew Chesnut, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, told RNS on Wednesday the meeting was a “solid foundation for communication.”

“Prior to the meeting, the only communication between the two were indirect barbs at each other during Trump’s presidential campaign,” Chesnut said.

He said the apparent success of the meeting does not “erase the fundamental differences of opinion between the two” but “sets the stage for future dialogue.”

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Trump also met the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and Archbishop Paul Gallagher, who is responsible for the Holy See’s relations with states, during his visit to the Vatican.

Trump and Francis have never seen eye to eye on many policy matters: Francis has put a priority on working to stop climate change, aiding the poor, reducing economic inequality, welcoming immigrants and refugees and providing universal health care. Trump generally takes the opposite view on those issues.

They are also a sharp contrast in styles, the soft-spoken pope who puts a priority on humility and mercy and the bombastic real estate magnate who brags about sexually assaulting women and humiliates his political foes.

President Trump and first lady Melania Trump meet Pope Francis during a private audience at the Vatican on May 24, 2017. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Evan Vucci/Pool

Trump first dinged Francis for not acting papal and proper when Francis was photographed paying his own hotel bill after his 2013 election.

Relations between the pope and the president were seriously strained last year when Trump, then the Republican candidate, repeatedly vowed to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border, among other anti-immigrant measures.

Without naming Trump, the pope said: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”

An angry Trump at the time described the pope’s comments as “disgraceful” and he said he was “proud to be a Christian.”

On the day of Trump’s inauguration in January, Francis sent the incoming president a telegram urging him not to forget the poor and those in need.

The pope also called for greater compassion for refugees days after Trump tried to impose a travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries when he was elected.

In a video of the pontiff’s prayer intentions for February, the pope expressed his concern about large numbers of people who he said were being marginalized on the fringes of society.

“Pray with me for all those who are afflicted, especially the poor, refugees and marginalized, so they may be welcomed and find comfort in our communities,” he said.

The Vatican has also urged Trump to listen to “dissenting voices” on climate change, and on Wednesday Vatican officials urged him not to pull the U.S. out of the historic Paris climate accord.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters that no decision had been made.

As the president was leaving their meeting on Wednesday he told the pope, “I won’t forget what you said.”

“Buena suerte,” the pontiff told him.

“Good luck.”

(Josephine McKenna writes for RNS from Rome)

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