WH: On second thought, we’d love to meet with Pope Francis

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Great second thought. It’s still not clear why it wasn’t the first thought. After weeks of making no effort to contact the Vatican to set up a sideline meeting between Pope Francis and Donald Trump at the upcoming G-7 meeting in Sicily next month, Sean Spicer suddenly announced yesterday that they would request the meeting after all.

At first, though, Spicer tried pushing off the question from Newsmax’s John Gizzi:

Q Thank you, Sean. A few weeks ago, I asked you about the President’s upcoming visit to Rome and whether or not he would have an audience with the Pope. And I pointed out that this is something that’s part of modern history, going back to 1959, when President Eisenhower had an audience with Pope John XXIII. You said it was something you would definitely be in favor of. A few days ago, the Financial Times reported that sources within the administration said this was very unlikely to happen, and that for the first time since nearly 60 years ago, the President would not have an audience with the Pope. Why?

MR. SPICER: So, right now, at this time, obviously we’re headed to both Brussels and Sicily. If we have updates on the schedule — and we’re still plenty far away — I’m sure that we will let you know about any additional stops.

Q Are you in touch with the Holy See about —

MR. SPICER: I appreciate the effort, but I think until we have an update, I’m not going to go there.

Later, after a surprise appearance by the Patriot’s Rob Gronkowski, Spicer reversed course:

NFL player Rob Gronkowski interrupts Sean Spicer's press briefing – video https://t.co/TSO7udrX3v pic.twitter.com/92OO1gF6eN

— Guardian sport (@guardian_sport) April 20, 2017

MR. SPICER: Hold on, one — (laughter) — all right, that was cool. (Laughter.) Real quick — how do you follow that?

Just to John Gizzi’s point, I just want to make sure I note that we will be reaching out to the Vatican to see if a meeting, an audience with the Pope can be accommodated. We’ll have further details on that. Obviously, we’d be honored to have an audience with His Holiness.

Gronk scores? (Well, we’re used to that.) What’s odd about this is that several questions had come between Gizzi’s exchange and this later answer. The question on the table when Gronkowski interrupted was about NAFTA. No one had followed up on Gizzi’s question, but Spicer returned to it anyway. Hmmm.

At least as late as last night, the Vatican still hadn’t heard from the White House, either. America Magazine’s Gerard O’Connell reports that the Holy See’s diplomatic office is happy to arrange the meeting if they get the request:

It is still not clear if President Donald J. Trump will meet Pope Francis during his visit to Italy in May. The Vatican spokesman, Greg Burke, told America that no official request for an audience had arrived at the Vatican from the U.S. president as of late Wednesday evening, April 19.

Senior Vatican officials have made it clear that a request from the Trump administration for a meeting with Pope Francis around the time of his visit to Italy for the Group of Seven nations meeting would be granted.

Yesterday, Archbishop Angelo Becciu, the number three ranking Vatican official who is responsible for the general affairs of the church, told the Italian news agency ANSA: “Pope Francis is always willing to receive the heads of State that ask for an audience.”

True — in fact, pontiffs traditionally will meet with any world leader at any time, regardless of diplomatic relationships and policy differences, when they request it. It’s a no-brainer, especially given the large number of Catholics around the world and here in the US. Catholicism is the largest religious denomination, and presidents since Eisenhower (as Gizzi noted) have seen these meetings as a way to connect better with those voters.

According to Christopher Lamb at The Tablet, Catholic allies from Paul Ryan on down have pushed for Trump to reconsider his earlier shrug at the meeting:

There had been reports that the President would not seek out the Pope during his visit to Italy due to logistical reasons and that no one among his staff was able to sufficiently brief Trump on a papal meeting. But Spicer’s comments mean that a visit is now looking more likely, and diplomatic sources pointed out that an audience makes “domestic political sense” given that Catholics make up the largest faith group in the United States.

It is also understood that Catholic Republican figures have urged the White House to include a visit to the Pope in the president’s Italy schedule. These include Speaker Paul Ryan, Jim Nicholson, former Republican Party Chairman, and Congressman Francis Rooney: both Nicholson and Rooney are former US ambassadors to the Holy See.

It may be that Spicer himself has given the project a push with his sudden clarification in yesterday’s presser. The expectation has certainly been raised, and now we’ll see whether the White House has third thoughts on this slam dunk.

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