VATICAN CITY — In an “unforgettable and historic” meeting Saturday with Pope Francis at the Vatican, President Russell M. Nelson became the first leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to have a formal audience with the head of the Roman Catholic Church.
The significance of the meeting was getting to know Pope Francis and for His Holiness “to know us and finding we have so many points in common,” said President Nelson.
“The differences in doctrine are real," he added. "They are important. But they are not nearly as important as things we have in common — our concern for human suffering, our desire for and the importance of religious liberty for all of society, and the importance of building bridges of friendship instead of building walls of segregation.”
The private meeting took place one day before the dedication of the Church’s Rome Italy Temple. Pope Francis spoke mostly in Italian.
President Nelson said Pope Francis was not only interested in the temple, but also the patron housing, the stake center and visitors center on the “Italian temple square.”
Joining President Nelson at the Vatican were President M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles; Elder Massimo De Feo, the Church’s only Italian General Authority Seventy; and Elder Alessandro Dini Ciacci, an Area Seventy in Italy. President Nelson's personal secretary, Mark Woodruff, also attended the audience.
Standing near the Papal City minutes after ending the meeting with an embrace and sharing a personal message with Pope Francis in Spanish, President Nelson spoke to reporters and looked up at a clear blue sky. “The beauty of the day is no accident,” he said. “Here we are in March on a sunny, warm day with everything in our favor. I think our Heavenly Father is pleased.”
Pope Francis is a “dear wonderful, humble, competent, gracious man,” said President Nelson. “I respect him highly.”
“He was kind to us,” added President Ballard. “We could not have asked for a more fulfilling experience. We were grateful that he would receive us.”
Elder DeFeo said that President Nelson, President Ballard and Pope Francis “seemed to be like old friends after a minute. There was a fantastic, incredible, very positive feeling that gives us hope. I surely felt a great hope for the future because we have so much in common.”
Elder Dini Ciacci called it inspiring to witness two world religious leaders “share brotherhood.” That feeling of brotherhood, love and respect is an example to all who interact with those of other faiths, he said.
The leaders presented Pope Francis with the Church’s proclamation on the family and a Lladro Christus. In return, the Papal leader gave Church leaders ”A Document on Human Fraternity for world peace and living together” (signed in Abu Dhabi this February); the Pope’s encyclical on the family; and a medal bearing the inscription, “Nothing is lost with peace. Everything may be lost with war.”
They spoke on the importance of religion in a secularized society.
“We both shared the feelings of the importance of freedom of religion and the stability that faith in God brings to a society,” said President Nelson. “If we have a Godless society, we have a rudderless ship.”
Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Pope Francis also was pleased to know that President Nelson and President Ballard have grandchildren who have lived and served in the country. In addition, President Ballard’s grandfather started the work of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Argentina in 1925.
“The connection that the president made with His Holiness was a wonderful thing,” said President Ballard. “They were friends from the first words.”
Speaking of the temple youth devotional that evening, President Nelson told Pope Francis that “we were going to meet with hundreds of his Italian youth" and "he cheered for that. He said, ‘You teach them to love their grandparents.’”
President Ballard said Pope Francis compared belief to a tree and encouraged the Latter-day Saint leaders to “get the roots [of belief] down deep into the hearts of our children.”
The Church and has worked “side by side” with Catholic Relief Service in 43 countries, said President Ballard. “We have been shoulder-to-shoulder as partners, in trying to relieve suffering.”
“How fortunate the Catholic people are to have such a gracious, concerned, loving and capable leader,” said President Nelson.
For Deseret News coverage of the visit and a look at the deepening and expanding alliances between the Latter-day Saints and the Roman Catholic Church and its many sister organizations, click here.