VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Pope Francis met with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence for an hour-long conversation at the Vatican on Friday, as President Donald Trump faces an impeachment trial before the U.S. Senate.
The Vatican and the U.S. embassy to the Holy See are not expected to release a statement about the conversation between Pence and the pope. Journalists present at the initial greeting between the two at the Vatican reported that Pence extended Trump’s greetings to Francis.
“I want to extend the warmest greetings on the part of President Donald Trump, who so enjoyed his visit here,” Pence told the pope.
Trump visited the Vatican in May 2017, accompanied by his wife Melania and his daughter Ivanka. At the time, the news coverage remarked that Francis was “stone faced” during the meeting.
The Argentine pope has often been depicted as being weary of the United States, especially after he remarked on a papal flight last September that, for him, “it’s an honor when Americans are attacking me.”
But during the meeting with Pence, Francis seemed to be all smiles. As a youth, Pence was Catholic before converting to become an evangelical Christian. He told the pope that the visit “made me a hero” in the United States.
Throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has proposed ideas that seem to clash with U.S. foreign and domestic policy, from stressing the importance of welcoming immigrants and refugees to the need to build bridges and not walls.
On Friday, Trump will attend the yearly March for Life in Washington D.C. marking the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which legalized abortion in the country. It’s the first time a sitting president has attended the event.
"It was a great privilege for me to spend time with Pope Francis and to be able to do so on a day that literally hundreds of thousands of Americans, including many Catholic Americans, are gathered on our National Mall in Washington D.C. standing up for the right to life, was a particular joy for me," Pence told EWTN in an interview after the meeting.
Pence commented on the number of young people attending the march and called the debate on abortion "the most pressing moral issue of our time." He also praised Trump's anti-abortion policies since he took office.
Since becoming pope, Francis has pushed the Vatican to focus less on single issues such as abortion and euthanasia and to promote a more holistic approach to the church’s commitment on life issues. This translates to the Vatican speaking strongly on behalf of the poor, the displaced and the environment as part of promoting life from conception to natural death. Papal critics have seen this as an effort to diminish the church’s commitment to combat abortion, even though Francis has often spoken against abortion and compared it to hiring a hitman.
Pence landed in Rome’s Ciampino airport on Friday with his wife and daughter-in-law. They were greeted by the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, Callista Gingrich, and her husband, Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House.
At the Vatican, the vice president gifted the pope with a wooden cross. Francis in return gave Pence a collection of five of his writings and a copy of his yearly peace message. In that document, the pope condemned the political vices of “xenophobia, racism and the plundering of natural resources” and decried what he called today’s “real third world war fought piecemeal.”
When tensions began to escalate between the United States and Iran at the beginning of the year, Francis called world nations to exercise self-control and promote dialogue as a pathway to peace.
"It’s important, particularly in the light of our action against Iran and a military leader just a month ago that the world continue to isolate Iran economically and diplomatically, and President Trump is going to continue to lead that charge," Pence told EWTN, in the context of combating antisemitism in the world.
They also discussed the pope's concern for Christian and religious minorities in Iraq and across the Nineveh Plain, the vice president said, adding that they looked for ways for the U.S. and the Holy See to partner with Catholic charities to prevent religious persecution and protect minorities.
The vice president said they also discussed the turbulent political situation in Venezuela. "It will take all of us, and I trust the consistent and courageous voice of the church in Venezuela to see liberty restored," he said.
After his meeting with the pope, Pence was scheduled to meet Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and President Sergio Mattarella.