It was 35 years ago this coming week that a pope and a president met together at the Vatican—and went on to change the world.
It was Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan. They met one-on-one at the Vatican Library. To this day, no formal transcript of their conversation has been released. The Reagan Library has no record, and the Vatican files are sealed for 75 years. They will not be released until June 7, 2057.
We do know, however, some of what was said—thanks to aides to the pope and president who were there.
Bill Clark, Reagan’s top aide and confidante—who more than any adviser helped Reagan and John Paul II take down an Evil Empire—described June 7, 1982 as a “wonderful” and “transformative” day that “gave the president and pope the ability to form a very personal relationship from then on.” The meeting led to real action. Clark said that the pope and president there translated a lofty divine mission into a practical mission to sustain Poland’s Solidarity movement as a crucial wedge to split the Communist Bloc—a “dagger to the heart of the Soviet empire.” It was there that the pope and president began creating “an underlying policy” and “strategy to defeat Soviet aggression and oppression.” The Vatican and Reagan administration would mutually commit their resources.
The two men consented to a clandestine campaign to hasten the dissolution of the Soviet communist empire and to free all of Eastern Europe.
In other words, the meeting between a pope and a president would alter the course of history.
Well, given that landmark anniversary, it’s quite striking that another pope and president just last week first met together at the Vatican. This time it was Pope Francis and Donald Trump.
They also met at the Vatican Library, and we likewise have no transcript, but we know their conversation carried some weight, given that President Trump told the pontiff: “I won’t forget what you said”—words so intriguing that they became CNN’s lead headline on the meeting.
Those words are indeed compelling. Wouldn’t you love to know what was said? Just as we’d like to know exactly what John Paul II and Reagan said.
To be sure, this wasn’t what the press wanted to see. The liberal media was clamoring for fireworks, for acrimony, for a fight—for a finger-pointing Francis to lecture the chest-thumping Trump about the callousness of “building walls.” We got none of that. Instead, the world marveled at a friendly meeting between two major leaders—the leader of the world’s temporal power and spiritual power, the leader of the United States and of the world’s largest group of Christians.
We got discussions that were described as “good” and “cordial.” The reporters permitted to observe the two men described the atmosphere as “relaxed,” “familiar” and “warm.” In the words of the Vatican itself, the pope and president made a significant “joint commitment in favor of life and freedom of worship and conscience.” The Vatican underscored a feeling of “serene collaboration” between the Church and the Trump administration “in the fields of healthcare, education and assistance to immigrants,” not to mention the “protection of Christian communities,” especially in the Middle East.
The get-together was friendly from the opening. “Welcome!” said Pope Francis upon greeting Donald Trump, who in turn graciously replied, “Thank you so much. A very great honor.”
After they met for 30 minutes alone, the two men connected to the larger Trump party, which included a veiled Ivanka and veiled first lady. As for the first lady, her attire was especially formal and fitting—fully veiled and dressed in black. And therein was perhaps the most interesting item of the entire trip: Mrs. Trump.
Melania Trump had first raised media eyebrows when it was reported that she brought Pope Francis a rosary to be blessed. That got people wondering: Whose rosary was it? A Catholic friend’s maybe?
We got a fuller answer the next day, when it was disclosed that the rosary was Melania’s—because Melania is Catholic. Now that was something we did not know. It suddenly means we have a Catholic first lady, the second only to Jackie Kennedy, another glamorous first lady.
The Melania news was a revelation. It would not have surprised, say, Pope John Paul II, the first Slavic pope. Melania is our first Slavic first lady, and she’s from a very Catholic country—Slovenia—one that was freed from the clutches of atheistic communism by the likes of Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan.
The Melania story is one of the biggest and best surprises to come from the Trump trip to the Vatican.
In terms of overall takeaways from the Francis-Trump meeting, there were many. The pope gave the president copies of his encyclical, Laudato Si, and his two major apostolic exhortations, Amoris Laetitia and Evangelii Gaudium. Trump responded appreciatively, telling the pontiff: “I’ll be reading them.” There were some awe-inspiring visuals, such as Melania and her humbled husband holding hands in the Sistine Chapel under Michelangelo’s Last Judgment.
But perhaps above all, remember Trump’s final words to the pope: “Good luck,” he said in his folksy, Trumpian way, adding to Francis: “Thank you. Thank you. I won’t forget what you said.”
That’s something we shouldn’t forget either, even if we don’t know precisely what was said. A relationship was begun, maybe even a long-term rapport. And as the pope-president meeting from 35 years ago this coming week showed—that between John Paul II and Ronald Reagan—when two leaders of this level meet, get along, and commit to something beyond them, important things can happen.
Photo credit: Catholic News Agency / L’Osservatore Romano)