VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church and President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints met today at the Vatican in the first-ever face-to-face discussion between the heads of the two global churches.
"The differences in doctrine are real and they're important," President Nelson said afterward as he stood just outside St. Peter's Square, "but they're not nearly as important as the things we have in common — our concern for human suffering, the importance of religious liberty for all of society, and the importance of building bridges of friendship instead of building walls of segregation."
The two world religious leaders shared a belief that faith in God brings morality and stability to society.
"If we have a godless society, we have a rudderless ship," President Nelson said.
The pope extended the invitation for a private audience to the Latter-day Saint leader in conjunction with President Nelson's trip this weekend to Italy, where he will dedicate the history-making new Rome Italy Temple.
The two men met for 30-35 minutes and also discussed their mutual concern for the youth in their churches, their concern about secularization and the desire for people to worship God, President Nelson said.
President M. Russell Ballard, president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, joined President Nelson in the meeting, along with Elder Massimo De Feo, a General Authority Seventy, and Elder Alessandro Dini Ciacci, an Area Seventy. President Nelson's executive secretary, Mark Woodruff, also attended.
The pope presented President Nelson with two gifts, his declarations on the family and on the Islamic faith. President Nelson gave the pope a Lladro figurine of the Christus statue and a copy of "The Family: A Proclamation to the World."
President Ballard said Pope Francis enjoyed the fact that he and President Nelson have had sons and grandchildren who served missions in the pope's homeland of Argentina.
“He was very kind to us. We could not have asked for a more fulfilling experience,” said President Ballard of the meeting.
The Vatican did not offer any comment on the meeting but released photos from the midday audience with the pontiff.
The pope and President Nelson embraced at the end of their time together.
"They gave each other a hug as we left that said everything," President Ballard said.
President Nelson invited Pope Francis to Salt Lake City and to the Rome Italy Temple.
"He's a dear, wonderful, humble, competent, gracious man," President Nelson said . "I respect him highly."
Elder De Feo called the meeting an historic event and said the two world religious leaders shared a respect for one another and their institutions.
"I had a wonderful feeling the minute we entered when I saw President Nelson, President Ballard and the the pope connecting together," he said. "It was a wonderful feeling to see how they seemed to be like old friends after a minute.
After the meeting, the Latter-day Saint leaders smiled as they walked arm in arm down Via della Conciliazione — the Road of the Conciliation — to address a large media contingent with the iconic St. Peter's Basilica in the background.
The most senior Latter-day Saint leader to meet with a pope before today was President Henry B. Eyring, who was greeted by Pope Francis in November 2014 when both spoke at an international marriage summit at the Vatican. President Eyring then was the first counselor in the First Presidency.
A visit between a pope and the man considered a prophet by millions of Latter-day Saints would have been unimaginable to leaders and members in both churches 50 years ago. Clandestine olive branches and decades of détente were necessary, according to sources from both faiths interviewed for this story. That is exactly what has happened. In fact, today's meeting is a culmination of a web of deepening and expanding alliances between the Latter-day Saints and the Roman Catholic Church and its many sister organizations.
That growing relationship has intensified during the past decade, resulting in collaborations that now have the two churches working side-by-side all over the world on projects vast and tiny.
The Deseret News conducted more than 20 interviews with people from both faiths around the world, from Bosnia to Rome and from Salt Lake City to Norway, to provide a definitive look at how the churches' combined efforts are not only helping to resolve differences between their own members but delivering emergency humanitarian aid to some of the world's most vulnerable people — including many at the U.S.-Mexico border — as well as working to defend religious liberty and to bolster families.
"We explained to His Holiness that we work side by side, that we have projects with Catholic Relief Services all over the world, in over 43 countries," President Ballard said. "We've been shoulder-to-shoulder as partners, and try to relieve suffering, trying to help people that are struggling. He was very interested in that and was very cordial , very kind to us."
Rome and Salt Lake City
On Thursday, Catholics and Latter-day Saints indeed worked side-by-side to help the homeless and refugees in their respective headquarters, Rome and Salt Lake City.
That appeared impossible in the 1950s when, fearing their own congregations would be scandalized if church members knew they were meeting, the leader of the Latter-day Saints came to Salt Lake City's Holy Cross Hospital for conversations with the head of the Salt Lake City Catholic diocese.
President David O. McKay would arrive under the guise of visiting a Latter-day Saint patient, then slip into the office of Bishop Duane G. Hunt. They used their private sessions to talk about community issues and the tensions between their members in Utah, said Monsignor J. Terrence Fitzgerald, who has had a front-row seat to the history of the two churches as a native Utahn ordained a Catholic priest in Salt Lake City in 1962.
"The Catholics were trying to get the Latter-day Saints not to bad-mouth the Catholics at every conference," he said, "and the Latter-day Saints were trying to get the Catholics to put in a good word for them on the national level."
Five decades of change has been nothing short of "drastic," Monsignor Fitzgerald added.
In the '50s and early '60s, Catholics were under official instructions to limit interactions with other faiths. They were not to attend funerals or weddings in other churches, for example. Latter-day Saints heard similar instructions.
Then the Vatican Council in 1963-64 opened the door to interfaith relationships. Leaders in both churches continued to work together. And the 1945 launch of Catholic Charities provided an opportunity for collaboration that would bring the churches' organizations, members and funds together in common purpose.
"We began to see that neither of the groups were the devil and we could all join hands in the community," Monsignor Fitzgerald said.
As that recognition grew deep roots, détente turned into accelerated collaboration over the past decade as concern grew in both churches about worldwide secularization.
"Secularism is prevalent in many western countries and many people have lost their faith in Jesus Christ," Latter-day Saint Presiding Bishop Gérald Caussé said. "And to have all Christian faiths join together and defend our values is important."
Latter-day Saints comprise more than half of the volunteers at the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Hall, a homeless resource center operated by Catholic Community Services of Utah. On Thursday afternoon, a group from several Murray, Utah, congregations prepared dinner.
The soup kitchen was one of the initial joint efforts by the two churches.
"The Latter-day Saints committed themselves as we built St. Vincent de Paul in 1967," Monsignor Fitzgerald said.
They provided much of the equipment. In fact, Latter-day Saint Charities quietly provides the soup kitchen and adjacent homeless resource center with $225,000 in a food commodities and $40,000 in blankets, quilts and hygiene kits each year, according to Matthew Melville, director of homeless services for Catholic Community Services of Utah.
"Our No. 1 partner is Latter-day Saint Charities and the Bishop's Storehouse," Melville said. "For us, it's been a great partnership. I know a lot of churches don't get along great. The Latter-day Saints and Catholic Church cooperate really well on a broad range of services in Utah. I read comments online that complain (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) should be doing more for the homeless, but it does it quietly through established partners. No, their name isn't on a building down here, and they aren't talking about it, but they are a silent partner in every effort to help the homeless downtown."
Also Thursday, nearly 6,000 miles away Latter-day Saint Charities was collaborating with Jesuit Refugee Services at a church in the heart of Rome, which surrounds the Vatican city-state that is Catholic headquarters.
In the crypt of St. Paul's Within the Walls, an Episcopal Church, the Jesuits provided support for resettled refugees in the morning. In the afternoon, a Latter-day Saint humanitarian senior missionary couple managed a new Friendship Centre that provides courses in cooking, piano, computers, first aid and beginning and intermediate English and Italian. The Latter-day Saint program launched last May with 25 refugees per week. This week, nearly 500 refugees attended its classes.
One of the intermediate Italian students is Sister Abbey Perpetua, 37, a Nigerian nun whose Catholic community assignment has brought her to Rome. The Friendship Centre is one of four overseen by Elder Steve Canfield and Sister Anita Canfield of San Clemente, California. The first was established in Athens. Two more operate in London.
Father Tom Smolich, the Vatican-based international director for the Jesuit Refugee Service, visited Salt Lake City in February, when he thanked Latter-day Charities leaders for making the Jesuits a global partner. He also was one of the more than 50,000 people who attended the Rome Italy Temple open house in January and February.
Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve gave Father Smolich a personal tour of the temple and a Lladro figurine of the Christus statue. The figurine now sits in the lobby of the Vatican office of the Jesuit Refugee Service, according to Gilles Francois, Europe Area welfare manager for the Latter-day Saints.
Monsignor Fitzgerald and President Ballard, who was at the Vatican on Saturday, take each other's calls and come to one another's aid.
The monsignor has had similar friendships with other Latter-day Saint prophets and apostles. A turning point in the relationship came in 1980, he said, when the entire First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles hosted a lunch to honor the retiring Catholic Bishop of Salt Lake, Joseph L. Federal, and welcomed his replacement, William K. Weigand.
"It was almost unthinkable," Monsignor Fitzgerald said. Bishop Weigand became very close friends with Elder Thomas S. Monson, who would later become the church president. Elder Monson attended Bishop Weigand's ordination and farewell. Latter-day Saint leaders have held welcome luncheons for each successive Bishop of the Salt Lake Diocese.
The more they met and worked on community issues like education and helping immigrants and the poor, the more mutual respect developed. Twenty years ago, the Salt Lake Diocese asked President Monson, then in the First Presidency, for help when some Latter-day Saints in Draper, Utah, opposed Catholic efforts to build a 57-acre school and church center.
"President Monson called local Latter-day Saint stake presidents and bishops and told them he wanted the opposition to end. It ended," Monsignor Fitzgerald said.
Several years later, Latter-day Saint leaders asked the Salt Lake Diocese for help when some Catholics opposed plans for the Paris France Temple. The diocese wrote a letter, the opposition ended and the temple opened in 2017.
"Those gestures were not in the newspaper, but they are tokens that demonstrate trust," Monsignor Fitzgerald said. "We are concerned that Latter-day Saints have the facilities they need to for worship, and they do the same for us."
No intercession was needed to build the Rome Italy Temple. Bishop Caussé visited with Catholic officials at the Vatican four times during the process of securing permits and constructing the temple. He said Catholic fathers were respectful and interested to learn about temples.
"No opposition or reluctance on the part of the Catholic Church was ever reported throughout the whole process," Bishop Caussé said. "It was benevolent consideration — no encouragement, but no discouragement either. And we always had very good interactions and were always very well received.
"When we met at the Vatican," he added, "the quality and scope of our humanitarian aid work was often mentioned and recognized."
Joint aid work is another linchpin in the churches' collaboration.
Pope Francis has said, "a church without charity does not exist," and the full, international range of Catholic Charities is staggering. In addition to Jesuit Refugee Service, another network of Catholic charitable organizations called Caritas spans 160 countries. Malteser International operates in about 20 war-torn and refugee-impacted countries. Catholic Relief Services, the American Catholic community's international economic development and humanitarian assistance operation, is a vast organization that operates in more than 100 countries and helps more than 130 million people a year, said Sean Callahan, its president and CEO.
Latter-day Saint Charities works with all of them.
In fact, Callahan was in Salt Lake City on Monday to meet with Bishop Dean M. Davies of the Presiding Bishopric. He told the Deseret News the smaller Latter-day Saint Charities is crucial to Catholic Relief Services as they work together in places like South Sudan, Jordan, Nepal, Yemen, Myanmar and the devastated areas ISIS has surrendered in its retreat in Iraq.
"It's not about size at all, it's about our mission," he said. "We have the same mission of helping all God's children around the world."
Callahan said that together, the two churches' charities foster positive change.
"I just came back from meeting with partners in the Middle East. I mentioned I was having this meeting in Salt Lake City. People said, 'Really? You're meeting with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?'"
It's a fair question. The two churches have major differences on critical points of doctrine. For example, they don't recognize each other's baptisms as valid and disagree about the concept of the Trinity and original sin.
That actually presents an opportunity, according to Callahan.
"Working with other faith-based groups helps us model interfaith and intercultural cooperation in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon," he said. "People seeing us doing this together is as important as doing it. Where ISIS has spread radical extremism, it's wonderful to have religious groups come around together to show solidarity. That way even our staff knows other faiths are behind them."
Robert Hokanson had a similar experience this week in Uganda. The director of Latter-day Saint Humanitarian Services said a Muslim refugee expressed gratitude that he could walk into a Jesuit Refugee Service office without concerns about facing discrimination. After he asked about Hokanson's faith, a group of Catholics, Muslims and Latter-day Saints had a conversation about the services various faiths were providing alongside one another for refugees in Africa.
"The way we go about doing humanitarian work has to honor freedom of religion," Hokanson said. "As we do that, it sets an example to the world that it really is important. Freedom of religion and belief allows us to exercise our faith in a way that blesses others.
Elder Dini Ciacci said Pope Francis and President Nelson modeled that civility during their meeting on Saturday.
"There was a great feeling of brotherhood and love and respect, and that is beautiful to witness," he said, "something we can learn from in our association with people of other faiths."
Catholic Relief Services is vital to Latter-day Saint Charities, which doesn't want to duplicate its partner's infrastructure.
"We've helped Catholic Charities in many countries where they have been established," President Nelson said. "And we have the people and the resources from our people who want to help. Sometimes it's been most effective if we just help Catholic Charities, rather than trying to do it all on our own."
"When there's an emergency, a civil conflict displacing people or a famine," Hokanson said, "we can pick up the phone to Catholic Relief Services and say, 'How can we help?' When you look at the breadth of the things we do in partnership with them, they are in so many places we couldn't go without them. They are so robust and so good at what they do, we're grateful and blessed to be their partners."
Much of what they do together happens quietly. They combine widely in Africa, which has more displaced people than any other place in the world.
For example, Catholic Relief Services and Latter-day Saint Charities are involved in a joint project in Uganda at the Bidi Bidi refugee camp helping 1,200 families in an agricultural livelihood program. The program provides skills training and vouchers for seeds and tools, allowing displaced farmers to establish garden plots and get back on their feet.
They also jointly support refugees returning home to Iraq in the wake of ISIS' defeat and to Ethiopia.
Economically depressed Bosnia had a handful of refugees a year ago. Today there are an estimated 10,000. Latter-day Saint Charities is working with the Jesuit Refugee Service and Caritas to help at refugee integration centers, providing washers and dryers, shoes, backpacks, and hygiene kits, said Sister Karen Cooper of West Jordan, Utah, part of a senior missionary couple directing efforts in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. They've also coordinated the installation of commercial kitchens in Catholic charity centers for feeding refugees.
Latter-day Saint Charities and Caritas work together in refugee resettlement and integration centers in Norway, too.
"The funding helped us provide job preparation and other courses for over 4,000 in 2016 and over 2,000 in 2017," said Per Wenneberg, director of integration and migration services for the Caritas in Norway. "We're really proud of this cooperation, because we're helping the very most vulnerable people."
On the border
Last year, when the U.S. administration reversed its brief strategy of separating immigrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border, it turned to Catholic and Lutheran organizations to help reunite the families. Those organizations turned to Latter-day Saint Charities for additional funding, said Bill Canny, executive director of Migration and Refugee Services for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C.
Latter-day Saint Charities provided $420,000, said the organization's vice chairman, Kris Mecham.
"More than 1,800 families were reunited in 75 days between the two agencies," he said. "The sanctity of the family is one of the values most highly cherished by the church and Catholic Charities, so to be involved together in something that dear — helping to reunite those families — was really satisfying."
Latter-day Saint leadership recently explored and declined the option of applying to become a refugee resettlement agency. Instead, they support Catholic resettlement efforts in 35 states, as well as those of other faiths, Mecham said.
"We've been very fortunate in the last few years to be in an excellent partnership with the Latter-day Saints," Canny said, "particularly around welcoming newcomers to the country. That includes refugees and, at times, immigrants, especially those seeking asylum."
Migration and Refugee Services coordinates two dozen local Catholic charities' access to supplies and resources in Latter-day Saint bishops' storehouses around the United States.
"This has been a tremendous support to one of the networks that resettles refugees in the United States," Canny said.
Latter-day Saint leadership has pledged to provide $450,000 in cash and $600,000 in 2019 for access to the storehouse for Catholic charities resettling refugees and working with asylum-seekers.
That would make it the fourth year in a row that the church has made a contribution to the refugee resettlement program of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, Mecham said.
Religious freedom is another key point of collaboration.
"It's about the human dignity or worth of everyone," said Gary Doxey, associate director at Brigham Young University's International Center for Law and Religion Studies. "It's the basis for religious freedom and the whole human rights regime. And it's also a doctrine that's quite important to the Catholic Church and to us. We are all children of God and equal in worth."
BYU, owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has hosted a parade of prominent Catholic speakers on the subject. The late Cardinal Francis George spoke to a campus crowd of 12,000 in 2010 and said attempts to reduce religious freedom to private worship and individual conscience was the tradition of the Soviet Union.
"I'm personally grateful that after 180 years of living mostly apart from one another, Catholics and Latter-day Saints have begun to see each other as trustworthy partners in defense of shared moral principles," he said.
The Archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput, spoke at BYU in 2015.
"I'm sure that my predecessors 30 years ago would be astonished that I'd be invited to Brigham Young University to speak to you," he said. "They just wouldn't have thought it possible. We have reached a point of friendliness, I think we've kind of been forced to it by circumstances. If we don't hang together, we'll hang alone, individually."67 comments on this story
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York and a long time friend of several Latter-day Saint leaders, including the late Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, is scheduled speak on religious liberty this summer at Utah Valley University in Orem, Utah, as part of the America's Freedom Festival at Provo, according to BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins.
"The more we can collaborate and share," said Callahan, CEO of Catholic Relief Services, "the better off we'll be as organizations and the better for the communities we serve."