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Pope Francis says he won’t ‘make a judgment’ about Trump without ‘listening to him first’

Pope Francis delivers Mass at a church in Casal Bernocchi, on the outskirts of Rome. (Massimo Percossi/European Pressphoto Agency)

When Pope Francis and President Trump, arguably the most influential voices in the West, meet on Wednesday, two men with radically different approaches on everything from migrant rights to climate change to the rhetoric of politics itself will be face to face.

Nevertheless, the U.S. president and the head of the Roman Catholic Church will try to find common ground in a meeting ripe with potential benefits and risks, particularly for Trump. Should they pull off a congenial discussion, it could serve as a much-needed diplomatic salve for the American leader. A gaffe, meanwhile, could quickly stoke fresh controversy for a president facing a mounting crisis at home.

Francis this month seemed to acknowledge their differences. In a candid comments to journalists, he said that he would not “make a judgment” on Trump before “listening to him first.”

“Always, there are doors that are not closed,” he said. “Look for the doors that are at least a little bit open, enter and talk about common things and go on.”

The Vatican appears to be playing down the meeting. The extent to which it will offer a detailed after-the-fact description of the encounter is in doubt.

That is partly, observers say, because there is one attribute that both Trump and Francis do share: unpredictability.

“At this moment, there is a great caution in the Vatican, a sort of embarrassment because nobody knows how the meeting will develop,” said Marco Politi, a Rome-based Vatican watcher and author of “Pope Francis Among the Wolves: The Inside Story of a Revolution.”

“The Vatican is just concentrating to see how and if there will even be a final communique,” he said. “For me, this meeting is only the beginning of what is becoming a difficult and complex relationship between the Holy See and the American presidency.”

To be sure, relations between Washington and the Vatican have always had their rough spots. John Paul II was so adamantly against the first Persian Gulf War that he denounced it as a “a darkness” that “cast a shadow over the whole human community.” But Vatican observers say they have never seen anything quite like the stormy relationship between Francis and Trump.

In a high profile back-and-forth last year, the pope suggested that a person who wants to build walls instead of bridges is "not Christian."

Trump replied by calling any religious leader who would say such thing “disgraceful.”

Since then, Francis, while largely avoiding mentioning Trump by name, has vocally opposed anti-migrant populism. This month, Francis also blasted the name of the U.S. military's "mother of all bombs" — a massive explosive device dropped on suspected Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan in April in an operation hailed by Trump.

“I was ashamed when I heard the name,” Francis told a group of students. “A mother gives life and this one gives death, and we call this device a mother? What is happening?”

If Francis has been indirect, senior Vatican advisers have not — offering in recent months blunt criticism of Trump’s position on migrants and climate change.

This week, the White House said it would nominate Callista Gingrich as ambassador to the Holy See. Her husband, Newt Gingrich, is one of the strongest advocates of right-wing politics in the United States, and that could pose a challenge to a Vatican City that has seen a decidedly progressive tint under Francis.

“I don’t think the Vatican will have any objection, but what you’re getting is not just Callista with her husband,” said Kenneth Francis Hackett, U.S. ambassador to the Vatican under President Barack Obama. “What you’re getting is Newt.”

White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon, a Catholic, has been seen to be critical of the pope. In April 2014, when he headed Breitbart News, Bannon sought out a meeting in Rome with the Rev. Raymond Burke, a conservative American cardinal based in Rome who is widely viewed as the pope’s greatest internal detractor.

Some suggest that the meeting, however, will find the two leaders engaging in a frank discussion. Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami predicted Francis will not shy away from major themes — arguing that he is likely to raise the subject of immigration reform, a key priority of the U.S. bishops and a point of contention between the White House and the Vatican.

As the first Latin American pontiff, Francis may also try to discuss with Trump the importance of issues facing that region.

“Really, right now, the crisis in our hemisphere is what's happening in Venezuela,” said Wenski, adding that the Vatican has tried to get involved in brokering an agreement between protesters and the government, while Trump seems less focused on the country.

“Venezuela could end up being the Syria of Latin America unless cooler heads prevail and exert some influence over the Maduro government to return to a democratic order,” he said.

On the plus side for both men, papal visits are not designed for controversy. They typically last 20 to 30 minutes — with anything longer seen as a sign that the discussion may have taken a deeper path. After the broad-brush discussion with the pope, Trump is set to discuss finer points later that morning with senior Vatican officials, including the secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

“It’s in nobody’s interest to try to win arguments,” said a senior Vatican official who spoke on the condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the issue. “The Holy See and the U.S. government will have their differences -- as they always do -- but there’s a whole range of issues they can work together on, and this kind of meeting can serve to get them off to a good start.”

Not all such meetings go like clockwork, though. Francis was said to have been very displeased after Russian President Vladimir Putin showed up late to their June meeting in 2015.

Though Vatican officials aren’t saying much, a few thoughts have slipped out — including the suggestion that Francis may seek to sway Trump on issues such as climate change. It is an issue dear the pope, who has called for a global fight to curb emissions.

Trump’s beliefs “are against science, even before being against what the Pope says,” the Rev. Marcelo Sanchez, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, recently told the Italian news agency ANSA. “In the election campaign he even said it was a Chinese invention. . . . But this president has already changed [his mind] on several things, so perhaps on this as well.”

Sanchez added that he believed Trump would heed Francis.

“They will come to an agreement. Since the president claims to be a Christian, he will listen to him,” Sanchez said.

Zauzmer reported from Washington. Stefano Pitrelli in Rome also contributed to this report.

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