Two Presidents and Two Popes…

Reagan and John Paul II vs. Trump and Francis: Two Historic First Meetings

By Paul Kengor Published on May 19, 2017

On June 7, 1982, Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II met for the first time at the Vatican. The two were of one mind and one mission.

It had been a little over year since both had been shot and nearly bled to death. Now, they talked alone for about an hour in the Vatican Library. The attempted assassinations were raised right away. Pio Laghi, the pope’s representative to the United States, later said that Reagan told the pontiff: “Look how the evil forces were put in our way and how Providence intervened.”

Bill Clark, Reagan’s closest aide, said that both men referred to the “miraculous” fact they had survived. And now, “because of their mutual interests,” said Clark, they came together to “form some sort of collaboration.”

What kind of collaboration? One that would truly change history.

The Protestant and Catholic, said Clark, shared a “unity” in spiritual views and in their “vision on the Soviet empire.” That day in Rome, said Clark, they discussed their joint sense that they had been given “a spiritual mission — a special role in the divine plan of life,” and agreed that “atheistic communism lived a lie that, when fully understood, must ultimately fail.”

The two leaders, temporal and spiritual, also had mutual ideas on what should be done to end the Cold War. Reagan told the pope that “hope remains,” most notably in the battleground that was Poland. “We, working together,” he told the Polish pontiff, “can keep it alive.”

They sure did. Cardinal Laghi would say of this Reagan-John Paul II meeting: “Nobody believed the collapse of communism would happen this fast or on this timetable. But in their first meeting, Holy Father and president committed themselves and the institutions of the Church and America to such a goal. And from that day, the focus was to bring it about.”

And aside from the singular purpose, the two men held much more in common. Both bravely fought what John Paul II dubbed the “Culture of Death,” affirming what Reagan called “the transcendent right to life of all human beings, the right without which no other rights have any meaning,” and what John Paul II almost identically called “the first of the fundamental rights, the right to life.” Reagan said that “every per­son is a ressacra, a sacred reality;” John Paul II said that every person is “a unique and unrepeatable gift of God.” They both insisted upon the interdependence of faith and freedom, the principle of subsidiarity, and the need to speak out unequivocally against evil.

All of which brings me to Donald Trump and Pope Francis.

Such crucial and even touching presidential-papal commonalities — which, for Reagan and John Paul II, enabled them to change the world — is lacking in the case of Donald Trump and Pope Francis. The presidential-papal meeting at the Vatican on May 24, 2017 will be utterly unlike the presidential-papal meeting at the Vatican on June 7, 1982.

Think about it. Regardless of their respective strengths and weaknesses, it’s hard to find much shared outlook between the man in the White House today and the man in the Vatican today. Do they possess a mutual understanding of what currently serves as the great international threat or global menace, or how to defeat it? What would President Trump and Pope Francis list as the dominant threats today? Radical Islam? Trump might, but not in the way — or certainly not with the preferred response — that Francis would.

Do their top priorities intersect anywhere? Immigration? Certainly not. “Climate change?” No way. Economic “inequality?” Nope.

Now, that said, this meeting could surprise people, and disappoint those looking for fireworks. Sure, the optics will be intriguing; mere photos of these two men together will seize interest. But as for pundits hoping for a fight, I think they’ll be disappointed.

After all, personality-wise, maybe the two men aren’t terribly dissimilar. Both of these strong personalities are colorful, outspoken, and infamous for off-the-cuff comments. Neither is afraid to speak his mind, or stick his foot in his mouth. Pope Francis on an airplane with an open mic and group of reporters can be as freewheeling as Donald Trump with his Twitter account unmonitored by Kellyanne Conway, leaving lots of clean-up for his spokespeople to handle. The two men both operate with a folksy candor sometimes endearing and sometimes maddening. They might get along better than people expect.

I don’t expect a verbal sparring match over “building walls.” Francis is too winsome to provoke a contentious disagreement. He’s a pope of mercy who preaches forgiveness and decries malevolence. I expect him to treat Trump well. And when Trump is treated well, he usually responds in kind.

Surely, Francis should be pleased and heartened that Trump — for his first presidential trip abroad — chose to go to the Vatican. That’s a significant gesture.

As for Trump, the brash New York swagger might be tempered by the sheer majesty of the St. Peter’s environs. As one pundit told me, “trips to the Vatican” change people. They do. So do meetings with the pope. They tend to affect people.

But again, unlike Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, I don’t perceive a grand historical-spiritual vision among Donald Trump and Pope Francis. I have no lofty historic hopes for this relationship. However, if a lesson can be learned from Reagan-John Paul II, it’s this: When a president and a pope come together with some significant goal in mind, really important things can happen. Good things can result. That’s something for this president and his staff to think about very prudently.


Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania. His latest book is A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century.

Print Friendly
Comments ()
The Stream encourages comments, whether in agreement with the article or not. However, comments that violate our commenting rules or terms of use will be removed. Any commenter who repeatedly violates these rules and terms of use will be blocked from commenting. Comments on The Stream are hosted by Disqus, with logins available through Disqus, Facebook, Twitter or G+ accounts. You must log in to comment. Please flag any comments you see breaking the rules. More detail is available here.
  • VisPacem

    Pope Francis has none of the sober past experiences of St. John Paul II in regard to totalitarian regimes.

    In fact, the former seems to be quite tolerant of such regimes, so long as they purportedly have objectives that accord with those of mega-financial globalists seeking to erode national sovereignties to enable a self-serving privileged elite who presume to truly know what constitutes the ‘common good’ for all other human beings ought to be.

    Trump, on the other hand, is just an America First guy who thinks that humans around the globe will only truly benefit in the long run so long as the American Republic recovers its integrity and principles.

    • Boommach

      Pope Francis is the one who equated ISIS to Christ’s disciples. Francis is not much different than other politicians on the world stage. He seeks worldly affirmation first and foremost.

    • James

      Pope Francis’s experience is with the right wing junta that ruled Argentina in the 1970s. His father fled Italy when Mussolini took power.

      • VisPacem

        Yes, ironically his father fled a national socialist regime in Italy and he grew up in Argentina witnessing the extreme statist governments of Ongañía, then Eva Perón, and Videla.

        Strictly speaking, all three are variations of ‘leftism’ since they were autocratic statists who violated almost every dimension of true subsidiarity.

        Bergoglio, who never really formed himself outside of those horizons, seems to equate what he euphemistically calls ‘capitalism’ with statism, even though he is more forgiving of autocratic statism that postures itself as being ‘socialist’.

        Any government that maintains any vestige of what is ‘right’ will seek to disperse power and increase free association for intermediate and lower social bodies, instead of undermining all autonomy to exponentially increase centralized control and regulation, whether politically or economically.

  • Stephen Fians

    I, for my part, intend to say Rosaries for both the Supreme Pontiff and my President. Lord knows they need it, just by virtue of the authority they hold.

    I pray that His Holiness will be open to the urgent prompting of the Holy Spirit to change his stance on many of the travails that are driving Holy Mother Church into the ground at present–not the least of which is the doctrinal blood feud being waged by the hierarchy–against one another, I might add.

    Also, and just as important, I pray that the Sacred Liturgy be restored to at least some semblance of its former glory. The highest and purest form of prayer in the Church should not be allowed to be as infected as it has with the scourge of countless “modernistic” ideas which only seek to address Our Lord & Savior almost as an afterthought!!! How or why we got here is immaterial now–we know the solutions:

    1) Ad orientem worship on the part of the Sacred Ministers to place the focus back where it should be, that is, on God;

    2) Music that fosters a sense of the sacred–no more guitars if and where possible, and hymns from solid orthodox Catholic source material (no more Wesley, Luther, or for that matter, Haugen or Schutte);

    3) Use the prayers that are actually written on the page—going “off-script” needs to be banned at the highest levels–to hell with political correctness and superfluous additions!;

    and, much as it pains me to say this (many dear friends of mine from Church are in this situation, 4) cease and desist all further attempts to integrate laypeople into liturgical roles they were never intended to have, namely a) distributing the Eucharist (only the Priest consecrates, only he and he alone should distribute to the faithful , b) the congregation saying the complete Our Father (the words only Christ ever said!), and c) reading from the Lectionary–again a role only a priest or deacon should ever perform.

    The Latin language in the Liturgy I can be persuaded to be more flexible than I can be with liturgical orientation and the other matters mentioned above. Not everyone is cut out to pray in a language that isn’t their first.

    Now, on to Mr. Trump. I pray that as President now, he has the wisdom to temper his rhetoric, be more conciliatory and seek consensus in matters of governmental (and media!) relations. He promised us that he would make government work for the people—may he now receive the grace and strength he needs to work to make good on that vow. And I fervently pray that he be more considerate of other people’s sensitivities to his personality and the horribly vulgar attitudes he expressed during the campaign–may he receive the grace to admit his faults and seek to be reconciled to all those he wronged these last couple of years. I’m almost certain his father would want that of him.

    Per Christum Dominum nostrum,

    Vivat Iesus!

Don’t Let a Pit Become a Grave
James Robison
More from The Stream
Connect with Us