ROME—U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is not having a very good Roman holiday. His 30-plus car motorcade glided over the cobblestone streets of the uncharacteristically dreary, overcast Italian capital Wednesday morning for his second visit in a year. But rather than receiving a hero’s welcome, as he did last time—complete with a private audience with Pope Francis and a visit to his ancestral home outside of Rome, he was accused of trying to exploit the pope on President Trump’s behalf.
The trilateral meeting between the U.S., Italy, and the Holy See should have been a pre-election opportunity to show that U.S. relations with Rome are stronger than ever. Instead, it was overshadowed by Italian headlines mocking Trump’s debate debacle in Ohio Tuesday night, topped off by an icy cold shoulder from Pope Francis, who refused to meet Pompeo this time around.
Pompeo instead headlined an event called, “Advancing and Defending International Religious Freedom through Diplomacy,” put on by U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Callista Gingrich in a socially distanced conference room at the posh Excelsior Hotel on the Via Veneto near the U.S. embassy. Bishop Paul Richard Gallagher, the Vatican's Secretary for Relations with States, gave an address after Pompeo spoke, but the most he could give by way of papal blessing was to say, “His holiness is aware of this meeting.”
When pressed earlier in the week about why the pontiff was seemingly snubbing Pompeo after having so warmly welcomed him just one year ago, the Vatican press office said the pope doesn't like to hold audiences with high ranking government officials so close to important elections. Immediately after speaking, ANSA news agency asked Gallagher to confirm if the reason “amounted to exploitation of the pope in the final stages of the U.S. presidential campaign.” Gallagher answered affirmatively, “Yes, that is precisely why the pope will not meet American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.”
The pope was also said to be upset by Pompeo’s comments regarding the Holy See’s growing warmth with China and the renewal of a 2018 agreement that aims to bring Chinese Catholics into the fold by legitimizing the Beijing-mandated Chinese Catholic Church.
Pompeo wasted no time on Gingrich’s stage in calling out such a move. “Nowhere is religious freedom under assault more than it is inside of China today,” Pompeo said. “As with all communist regimes, the Chinese Communist Party deems itself the ultimate moral authority.”
Pompeo reportedly angered the pontiff earlier this month by pressuring the Vatican to abandon the agreement in the conservative Catholic magazine First Things. “The Holy See has a unique capacity and duty to focus the world’s attention on human rights violations, especially those perpetrated by totalitarian regimes like Beijing’s,” he wrote. “What the church teaches the world about religious freedom and solidarity should now be forcefully and persistently conveyed by the Vatican in the face of the Chinese Communist party’s relentless efforts to bend all religious communities to the will of the party and its totalitarian program.”
The Chinese Catholic Church has been a priority for Francis since his election in 2013 and it would seem no amount of pressure from abroad will in any way deter the pope’s desire to give Chinese Catholics an opportunity to be blessed by the Vatican.
Pompeo’s Roman itinerary also includes meetings with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, a member of the Five Star Movement, which has just called for many of their parliamentarians to isolate after a small COVID cluster seemed to be spreading among the party members. He will also get a private tour of the Borghese Gallery before being hosted at the ambassador’s residence for a small but glitzy dinner Wednesday night. Thursday, Pompeo will visit a Catholic charity that deals with Syrian refugees and meet privately with the Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, where China relations will top the agenda.