ROME – As a potential first fruit of Wednesday’s first-ever meeting between Pope Francis and President Donald Trump, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York said he’s already contacted the White House to suggest one way the two leaders could act on their pledge of concern for “the protection of Christian communities” in the Middle East.
The line came in a Vatican statement released shortly after the half-hour session between Francis and Trump on Wednesday, and it reflects exhortations both the pontiff and the president have voiced about the need to defend at-risk Christians in the region, especially those in Iraq and Syria targeted by ISIS militants.
Dolan said on The Crux of the Matter, a Catholic Channel program carried on Sirius XM 129, that he’s expressed his desire to the administration that some share of U.S. funding for humanitarian relief for ISIS victims be administered by the churches of the region, to ensure that it reaches Christian refugees and displaced persons.
Aid workers trying to assist those Christians have long noted that most U.S. and U.N. aid to the area flows through large refugee camps, which Christians typically avoid out of fear of being further exposed to Islamic militants. Instead, they prefer to take shelter in churches, convents and other ecclesiastical facilities.
As a result, little aid reaches those Christians directly, and church organizations have been carrying the lion’s share of the burden for funding relief efforts.
On another front, Dolan also predicted that after Wednesday’s half-hour session, Francis and Trump are likely to become “phone buddies,” regularly following up with one another about matters of mutual concern.
Dolan, a former president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, and Bishop William Murphy, the retired leader of Rockville Center diocese and also a former official of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (which has been absorbed by the new Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development), spoke on Wednesday to The Crux of the Matter, Crux’s weekly radio program on “The Catholic Channel” on Sirius XM 129.
From a distance, were you surprised at how warm and friendly this meeting seemed to be?
Dolan: I wasn’t surprised at all. But you are correct when you say that that seems to be lead story over here. It seemed to be gracious, it seemed to be amicable, it seemed to be productive. A lot of people, I think, bought into the caricature that the pope and President Trump were going to be at loggerheads, and that this wasn’t going to be a pleasant meeting.
Any of us who are familiar with Pope Francis knows he has a great charism of putting people at ease, and he loves to break down caricatures. He takes seriously his title, ‘pontifex’, which means the bridge-builder. He knew that the caricature out there was that he was going to shake his finger at Donald Trump and lecture him.
I just came from CNN, and Chris Cuomo played back to me an interview he had with candidate Trump about six months ago, when he said, “Alright, Mr. Trump, the first time you see the pope he’s going to shake his finger at you and say capitalism is bad, business is bad, what are you going to say to him?”
That was the caricature there, and it didn’t happen. We got a pope who loves to shatter caricatures. You meet people with reverence and respect. You build bridges, you engage in encounter and dialogue, and he gave us a great example of that this morning.
Bishop Murphy, does it surprise you that it was basically very friendly? You’ve seen a lot of heads of state coming to the Vatican. You know how this works. Was it your expectation going in that this was basically going to be a friendly session?
Murphy: Yes, very much so. Why? Because both of them are big men, and not just physically. They know they are meeting someone who’s very important, and they are going to do it the right way. And there’s a whole protocol that I’m sure the president was instructed in.
They had things that were too important to get involved in pleasantries. The statement from the Vatican mentioned immigration, the Middle East, collaboration for peace. They talked about a whole series of issues, all of which have to do ultimately with justice and peace in the world. They can’t play around. They have to be honest with each other, and they have to keep finding ways and supporting the good inside.
Cardinal Dolan, I’m sure you’ve noticed that persecution of Christians in the Middle East was in the Vatican’s statement as something the pope and the president talked about. Are you optimistic there could be some common cause today?
Dolan: Yes, definitely. No matter how many criticisms one might have about Donald Trump, and the Lord knows there are many, I think we all have to express appreciation for the fact that he does show an innate sensitivity for the plight of suffering Christians throughout the world. He’s not afraid to talk about it, he has led many of us to believe that he’s sincere in the solicitude he shows, and I am sure that that’s one of the plights that came up.
The other thing that I think will be interesting, I bet you that Pope Francis did some listening too. It wasn’t only a time for Pope Francis to talk to Donald Trump, it was a good time for him to listen. Why? Because the president of the United States had just come from two volcanic areas on the face of the earth, in the Middle East.
So here you’ve got a guy who, from a natural point of view, is fresh back from those two volatile areas, and he’s talking to a man who from a spiritual-moral point of view, and yeah, from the point of view of personnel, is very, very savvy about those regions of the earth.
I read your comment the other day, about if you talked about the two world leaders who most have their own people with boots on the ground, it would be the president of the United States and the pope. Because they both have their people, their armies, in the pope’s case his spiritual, moral army. They actually have people there on the front lines. And I’m sure they were talking about that, and I’m sure the plight of Christians was high on the list.
It’s almost been a national pastime for everybody to talk about the areas where the Donald and the pope disagree. But boy, if you want to have a list of areas where they do agree, it might be a little shorter, but there are some very valuable areas. And the plight of Christians is one of those areas.
You brought it up. We want to make sure that the powers that be actually hear about this initiative for Christians in the Middle East. You offered a prayer at Trump’s inauguration ceremony. I think that might have given you enough to lift up the phone and call someone in the administration and say, hey, you should read this and do something about it.
Dolan: Well the only thing I say to that is bingo, you’re right on target. Especially the point that you made. Bishop Murphy and I, we spent a week in Kurdistan last year after Easter. We visited a lot of camps, and you are right, Christians are afraid to go there because they would be but a tiny minority. And they’d already been driven out from their homes by the people who come from the majority that are in the camps.
Where do they go? We saw them jammed in tents on the grounds of the cathedral, which had become a tent city. And it would be extraordinarily shrewd and pragmatic for the government of the country that is often praised for those two qualities, shrewd and pragmatic, instead of giving money to these nebulous, anonymous, UN super national groups, let’s give them to the pastors, the mother superiors, let’s use Aid to the Church in Need, Catholic Near East Welfare Association, Knights of Columbus, Knights of Malta, Catholic Relief Services, Caritas.
Let’s use those who are going to literally wheel barrel them over into the camps, the food, the medicine, the sleeping bags. I think you’re on to something.
And I think, for all the critics we might have, I think we have an administration that is open to those kinds of things.
Last week I had the new Apostolic Administrator of Jerusalem, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, and he was here and he said, he surprised me by saying that he had welcomed, and that he had sensed a posture of welcome in the rather impetuous announcement by President Trump that he was going to visit Israel and Palestine. A lot of the seasoned diplomats said, “This is a little too unprecedented, a little too quick, a little too impetuous.”
And he said, “Darn it, what do we have to lose? Maybe this will work.”
Now, here’s my point, he also said that he and a group of religious leaders had indicated to the American ambassador that it might be wise for the president or a high-ranking representative to meet with Christian religious leaders. And the White House had shown an openness to that, and was going to make it work.
Now I heard the archbishop Pizzaballa, who’s been around for a long time, indicate that that was a very refreshing posture on the part of the government of the United States.
Would you be willing to pick up the phone and call someone in the administration?
Maybe you don’t have to use the future tense. As you would know, già fatto (an Italian phrase meaning, “already done.”) I think it’s a very good idea. Darn it, we have to make hay while the sun shines here. This is a good time to make some hints, suggestions, prodding, into the White House about things that can constructively be done.
Bishop Murphy, do you share that optimism?
Yes, and I’d like to throw one little piece into what the cardinal said. I had the opportunity for example, and this is just a quick example, just before Christmas I sent a chunk of money over to the nuncio in Syria. He received it on the 24th of December.
He sent me an email on the 25th of December, when I’d finished Mass and before I was going to my Christmas dinner. He was writing to say that all the money that I had sent had been distributed to the families because of the priests and nuns in the neighborhoods who know who needs what the most. That’s the kind of thing we can do, and we have to keep that in mind as a way for the president to know how faith-based communities can work.
But one other little thing that I think sometimes we can forget. There’s such a migration today, and we have to help all those who’ve left their countries, but most of the Syrians are internally displaced. They want to stay home. And very often, nations look upon as migrants those who have already left. The first thing is residents would like to be able to live in his or her own home, if he or she wishes to do so. That is a major thing that sometimes could be lost.
We need to make sure that the countries where they come from are places that are rated as peaceful nations and continue to be peaceful nations. That is a major part of the problem.
You agree that the meeting between Pope Francis and President Donald Trump this morning was, at least measured against expectations, surprisingly positive. But going forward, how would each of you measure if the meeting actually made a difference?
Dolan: Here’s my hunch. Both Pope Francis and President Trump are what you call ‘telephone jockeys.’ They love to use the phone. They love surprise phone calls. My hunch, and this is only because of what I know from people who are close to him, is that before he left today, President Trump said to the pope on a given issue … I don’t know what it was, but there was some issue that came up, that Pope Francis probably brought up … and President Trump probably said, ‘Get back to me on that. That’s very important to me, I’m going to go home and do that, and get back to me.’
My hunch is they’re going to be phone buddies now. They both like rolodexes, see. Pope Francis is going to call him and say, ‘Mr. President, do you remember when we were together about three weeks ago? You told me about this issue, you told me you were going to go home and take care of it, how are we doing?’ That’s going to happen.
One of the great things about these kinds of meetings is that they put a face to a person. Pope Francis is great on that. He says, ‘Don’t talk about immigration, talk about the immigrant. Don’t talk about poverty, speak about this poor person who has a face and a name. Don’t talk about the President of the United States, but talk about Donald Trump, whom I’ve now met, whom I’ve spoken with, and I have his private phone number.’ Something good is going to come out of that.
Murphy: Just to add to what Cardinal Dolan has said, the president spent a full hour with Cardinal Parolin and Archbishop Gallagher. I know them both, but I’m a very good friend of Archbishop Gallagher. I would say they’re the kind of people who would be part of a follow-up to this meeting.
I’d be very surprised if, when the new ambassador comes, they will not have ready for her a whole list of things they want to follow up on. [Note: Murphy is referring to Trump’s announcement that he intends to nominate Callista Gingrich, wife of former House speaker Newt Gingrich, as his ambassador to the Vatican.]
They’re both ‘can-do’ people … Paul Gallagher was in Burundi in a tight situation and handled it beautifully. They’re going to be the ones who make sure the more long-range issues are addressed. I have a lot of hope, similar to what the cardinal said about the president telling the pope, ‘I won’t forget those words of yours.’ I would say these two men are going to have a lot of work to do, and they’ll do it.
Dolan: I found very telling the two places the president’s wife and the president’s daughter visited afterwards. This was an extraordinarily wise and perceptive decision on somebody’s part, that Mrs. Trump would visit Bambino Gesu hospital, and that the daughter would visit victims of human trafficking in a resettlement facility run by members of the Sant’Egidio community. That shows some diplomatic sensitivity. These are two initiatives very close to the heart of Francis, and I think that was kind of a win for the president.