For the first time, a Catholic pope and a Latter-day Saint prophet met — faith to faith and face to face.
Pope Francis and Russell M. Nelson, top leaders of separate global Christian religions, sat down together Saturday at the Vatican for a 33-minute exchange a day before the American-born faith dedicates its first temple in Rome, the cradle of Catholicism.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced the meeting between the 82-year-old Francis and the 94-year-old Nelson, early Saturday morning. M. Russell Ballard, the 90-year-old acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, attended as well.
While the historic encounter may not be as significant for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics — popes frequently give audiences to foremost religious figures — the spiritual calculus adds up to watershed recognition for the globe’s 16 million Latter-day Saints.
After their private meeting with the pope, Nelson and Ballard emerged, arms linked, at the Vatican.
“We had a most cordial, unforgettable experience with His Holiness," Nelson said in a news release. "He was most gracious and warm and welcoming to President Ballard and me.
“What a sweet, wonderful man he is,” the Latter-day Saint president added, "and how fortunate the Catholic people are to have such a gracious, concerned, loving and capable leader.”
So what did the religious leaders discuss? Global relief, for starters, and the two religions’ mutual efforts to relieve human suffering.
“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," Ballard said in the release. "[We’ve] been shoulder to shoulder as partners in trying to relieve suffering. He was very interested in that.”
Nelson said they also talked about the "importance of religious liberty, the importance of the family, our mutual concern for the youth of the church, for the secularization of the world, and the need for people to come to God, and worship him, pray to him and have the stability that faith in Jesus Christ will bring in their lives.”
And they chatted about the new Rome Temple, with its role in connecting families eternally in Mormon theology.
The visiting Latter-day Saint delegation presented the pontiff with a Christus figurine and a framed copy of the faith’s family proclamation in Italian. In return, Francis gave his guests a copy of his apostolic exhortation on the family.
Francis and Nelson concluded their meeting with a hug.
The Vatican offered no details of Francis’ Saturday audience with the Latter-day Saint delegation, The Associated Press reported.
The importance of the weekend events for Mormonism is evident in the fact that, for the first time in Latter-day Saint history, all 15 top male Latter-day Saint leaders (though none of its high-ranking female officers) will be present in the same location on foreign soil. It represents another marker that the Utah-based faith is ready to take its place in a spot where many biblical events occurred.
“Rome is Rome,” said Latter-day Saint historian Matthew Bowman, “a symbol of political authority and religious authority, a city that symbolizes the heart of Christianity.”
The Francis-Nelson meeting “indicates the relatively ecumenical nature of modern Roman Catholicism (and particularly this pope’s instincts toward public magnanimity),” Bowman said. “It also signals something about the politics of modern temple building — that they are as much a sign of material legitimacy as they are intended for ritual use.”
The existence of temples in key locations “shows the church’s intentions to be a serious global religion,” said Bowman, author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith," “one whose presence on the landscape is to be noted.”
The church is “still growing up in a lot of ways,” the historian said. “It’s trying to assert that it is a global faith with global aspirations and global ambitions.”
Ugo A. Perego, director of the LDS Institute of Religion in Rome, was at the temple there when the meeting of the leaders took place.
He was thrilled by the high-powered conversation.
“It is an exciting and historical time for everyone,” Perego wrote in an email. “I was born Catholic, and I can see a lot of good from a meeting like this one. Private closed-door meetings with the pope are not very common and not just anyone can ask for one.”
The institute director speculated that Francis might be more familiar with the American church than most would think.
“Being from Argentina and with a large membership in that country [of more than 450,000 Latter-day Saints], he surely knows about us,” Perego said. “Now we are definitely on his radar.”
Some, however, were troubled by the absence of top female leadership.
Catholic scholar Colleen McDannell, a University of Utah religious history professor and author of “Sister Saints: Mormon Women Since the End of Polygamy,” said in a message: “It saddens me that on such an important day for Mormons, women’s leadership is not visible” and that high-ranking women “were not invited to participate in the [temple] celebration.”
Both churches — the largest on the planet and a much smaller one — claim to be the true church of Jesus Christ.
They have deep theological differences, so great that the Vatican does not recognize Mormonism as Christian, citing the Latter-day Saint rejection of the Trinity as one of the reasons. Neither recognizes the other church’s baptism, requiring converts to be rebaptized into their respective new faith.
The conflict between the two even extends beyond theology to the question of divine authority, Bowman noted. “Each side claims ‘we have priesthood authority that nobody else has.’ That makes them rivals on multiple levels.”
In the 19th century and much of the 20th, many Latter-day Saints viewed the Roman Catholic Church as “the great and abominable” church described in Mormon scripture.
Recently, though, the two have collaborated on social issues (opposing same-sex marriage and defending religious freedom) and on humanitarian efforts (feeding the hungry, offering disaster relief, and building up resources for a sustainable living).
In 2014, two Latter-day Saint officials — Henry B. Eyring of the governing First Presidency and the late apostle L. Tom Perry — joined religious leaders and scholars from 14 faiths and 23 countries in Rome for a three-day Vatican-sponsored "colloquium" titled "An International Interreligious Colloquium on the Complementarity of Man and Woman."
At that time, the pontiff shook Eyring’s hand, a gesture believed to be the first such exchange between a pope and a leading Latter-day Saint authority.
Other high-ranking Latter-day Saints previously have met or greeted a pope, but not in any official religious capacity.
Jon Huntsman Sr., who died last year, visited Pope John Paul II and counted the late pontiff and the late Latter-day Saint President Gordon B. Hinckley as two men he most admired.
Such connections might have seemed unthinkable when Joseph Smith Jr. launched his little church in upstate New York in 1830 — or to the Latter-day Saints who trekked across the continent to set up their own Beehive State.
At first, those hardy Mormon pioneers who settled the Salt Lake Valley and the Catholics who began joining them in the 1860s generally had a live-and-let-live relationship, Catholic historian Gary Topping told The Salt Lake Tribune in 2009 during the centennial celebration for the downtown landmark Cathedral of the Madeleine.
"Catholics and Mormons were operating on two separate tracks pretty much," Topping, archivist for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, explained.
Still, he added, “there was always a little sniping going on."
The state’s predominant church was building what they hoped would be Zion, while the Catholics planted parishes, schools and Holy Cross Hospital.
Salt Lake City’s first Catholic bishop, Lawrence Scanlan, had hoped the schools he started would lead to conversions among Latter-day Saint children, Topping said. "He was disabused of that pretty quickly."
There continued to be some cooperation but also barbs between the two churches in Utah.
The low point for relations came in 1958. when Latter-day Saint general authority Bruce R. McConkie wrote an encyclopedic volume, “Mormon Doctrine,” which identified the Catholic Church as the “church of the devil” and the “most abominable above all other churches.”
Then-Catholic Bishop Duane Hunt apparently took the matter to Latter-day Saint President David O. McKay, and McConkie's book was revised in the next edition.
"He never said it directly, but I think McKay was so upset by the negative impact of McConkie’s book that it jolted him into believing he had been part of the problem,” McKay biographer Gregory Prince said in a 2009 interview. "He quietly reversed field. After that, he never again was negative to Catholics, privately or publicly."
Building a partnership
In the past few decades, Utah’s Catholic bishops and Latter-day Saint leaders have formed strong bonds over common values and visions.
Catholics run homeless shelters; Latter-day Saints fund meals and volunteer to help.
In 2008, former Utah Catholic Bishop George H. Niederauer had moved to San Francisco as archbishop and asked his Latter-day Saint buddy, then-President Thomas S. Monson, to help drum up support for California’s Proposition 8, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman.
Monson enlisted his church members and statewide volunteers in the effort, ultimately taking the lead against same-sex marriage.
Latter-day Saint presidents and apostles grew to respect and value their association with Catholic bishops and priests. They worshipped together, sang together, dined together, golfed together, laughed together and wept together.
“Over the years we have collaborated with the Latter-day Saints for the common good,” Monsignor Terrence Fizgerald said. “We support common values, we share the common conviction that we are all children of God and deserve respect.”
From time to time, Utah Catholic bishops have aided LDS efforts “to obtain permits to build their temples, as in the case with Bishop [John] Wester and the LDS temple in Paris,” Fitzgerald said, just as Monson encouraged Latter-day Saints in Draper “to support our efforts to build the Skaggs Catholic Center.”
Two churches buttressing each other helps “build decency in the community. … [It’s] collaborating in the best way possible,” the monsignor said. “That is what is expected of Christians and others of good faith.”
A testament to these multifaith ties was on display in June 2015 at a reception honoring Wester before his departure to head up the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.
Ballard, the Latter-day Saint apostle, expressed his sadness at seeing Wester leave Utah.
"You are losing your wonderful bishop," he told the crowd gathered in a Salt Lake City hotel ballroom, "and I am losing one of my very dear friends."
Wester and Ballard, along with Ivory Homes founder Ellis Ivory, had become regular golfing buddies.
Besides sharing a few jokes and laughs, “we talked about community issues and concerns over values,” Ballard said. “It was a marvelous experience for me."
The three, he said, committed to playing golf again in Utah.
Until then, “I asked Heavenly Father to watch over you and protect you,” the apostle said, adding that he was sure the people of Santa Fe “would fall in love with you as we have.”
Utah’s current Catholic bishop, Oscar A. Solis, congratulated the Latter-day Saints on building a temple in Rome.
“We are pleased that the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have a religious facility convenient for their members in Rome,” Solis wrote in an email. “We all benefit when people of every faith have the ability to worship as they wish and can receive the support they need for meaningful lives.”
Given the Rome temple and papal audience, it could be a new day for the two faiths — at least in Latter-day Saint eyes.
Editor’s note • Paul Huntsman, owner and publisher of The Tribune, is a son of the late Jon Huntsman Sr.