National Edition

Sen. Mike Lee, Dirk Kempthorne, Joel Osteen meet with Pope Francis at Vatican

Published: Thursday, June 5 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, left, shakes hands with Pope Francis during a meeting with the pontiff on Thursday, June 5, 2014, at the Vatican. Lee was part of a delegation of political and religious leaders from the United States. In the middle is U.S. Senator Dirk Kempthorne, R-Idaho.

Sharon Lee

WASHINGTON — A small group of political and religious leaders from the United States, including Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, met privately with Pope Francis at the Vatican today.

Part of a multiday, unofficial visit to Italy to promote ecumenical prayer and interfaith understanding, Lee was joined in the private audience by former U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne; Lakewood Church pastor and televangelist Joel Osteen; Tim Timmons, a pastor and author based in Newport Beach, California; and Gayle D. Beebe, president of Westmont College, an evangelical school in Santa Barbara, California.

Lee said The International Foundation, a private nonprofit, arranged the trip.

The Utah Republican conversed with the Pope in Spanish, which is the pontiff's mother tongue, about the need for faith in Jesus Christ and to build families. Lee, who served a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, speaks fluent Spanish.

"I was told it would not only be the proper protocol, but also appreciated if I were to address him in Spanish," Lee said in a telephone interview from Rome. "The invitation to meet came from Pope Francis' desire to invite more people to come unto Jesus Christ," he added.

Lee said Francis asked his guests to pray that more people would serve and protect the family.

Ecumenical outreach

According to a Westmont College statement, the pontiff "invited the Protestant leaders to discuss the question: 'Can we find common ground in order to advance the life and ministry of Jesus so more people can experience the joy of Christian faith?'"

Lee and his wife were apparently the only members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the delegation.

"There was a very good spirit with him. I enjoyed the interaction," Lee added. "He's a very humble man."

Lee said he told Francis about the ecumenical prayer breakfasts held in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, and that the pope replied he supported such ventures. But beyond that and the usual pleasantries, Lee said, the pontiff had no specific message for him.

During his days in Rome, Lee said, he observed Francis in action when the pope met with more than 50,000 charismatic Roman Catholics during a worship service at Rome's Olympic Stadium. After arriving in a Ford Focus and asking the crowd for prayers, Lee said, the pontiff knelt on the ground to pray, the traditional "kneeler" cushion not being available.

A former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, Francis Rooney, applauded the pope for meeting with the group. "I think the Pope, in reaching out, is broadening the concept of ecumenical dialogue, and he's reaching out to people who can touch other Christians," Rooney said

He noted that Pope John XXIII reached out to Jewish leaders, "having served as a papal nuncio (ambassador) and appreciated (their) plight" during World War II. And Pope John Paul II, who along with John XXIII was canonized in April, continued the outreach to Jews and included Eastern and other Orthodox Christian leaders, Rooney explained, and now Francis is widening the circle.

"This pope's a whirlwind," Rooney said. "He's making a great contribution to the world, I think. He's doing great things for the world. … I think the Pope, in reaching out, is broadening the concept of ecumenical dialogue and he's reaching out to people who can touch other Christians."

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