Latter-day Saint President Russell Nelson dedicates Rome Temple day after historic meeting with Pope Francis

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) President Russell M. Nelson and his wife, Wendy, help two young Latter-day Saints during the cornerstone ceremony of the Rome Italy Temple on Sunday, March 10, 2019.

A day after his historic meeting with a white-cassocked Pope Francis in unfamiliar surroundings inside the Vatican, a white-suited President Russell M. Nelson found himself Sunday in a familiar setting to perform a very familiar task: dedicate a new Latter-day Saint temple.

But this temple, the faith’s 162nd operating one around the globe, is significant not so much for how it looks but for where it sits — in northeast Rome, the Eternal City, the capital of Catholicism, the scriptural site where ancient apostles Peter and Paul preached.

Nelson, the 94-year-old leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, noted those biblical ties during his dedicatory prayer.

“We acknowledge the ministry of two of thy son’s early apostles, Peter and Paul, who once blessed this land with their labors,” he said, according to a news release. “May the influence of their abiding testimony of Jesus Christ continue to be felt among the vital values of this great country.”

He also hinted at the extraordinary efforts it took to erect the temple.

“We are grateful for the support of church, government and civic leaders who have offered much-appreciated goodwill in our desire to build this holy temple here in Rome,” he prayed. "Wilt thou bless them for their kindness and fortify their continued desire to preserve religious liberty for all.”

The temple took more than a decade to bring to fruition. It was announced in 2008 and construction began two years later. Work stalled for a stretch, so much so that Italian Latter-day Saints held a daylong fast in January 2015 seeking heaven’s help to get the project back on track.

Nelson offered the dedicatory prayer at three services Sunday.

The three-story, 40,000-square-foot structure — with its curved ceilings, curved walls and hints of Rome-reminiscent colonnades and columns — will host similar dedicatory services Monday and Tuesday before opening to faithful Latter-day Saints to take part in their faith’s most sacred rituals.

During Sunday’s ceremony, as is customary, Nelson, his wife, Wendy, and other church leaders exited the structure to place mortar around the cornerstone. They did so with all the precision of honorary bricklayers, not expert craftspeople.

“To be honest with you,” Nelson jested, “they’ll have to erase what we’ve done and do it all over again.”

Latter-day Saint children helped with the cornerstone ceremony.

“I’m happy because I put the mortar in the stone,” said 7-year-old Elena Malara of Monterotondo, Italy.

Her mother, Maria Irma Curatola Malara, said in the release that it was an emotional event. “Our daughters had an opportunity to see President Nelson and enjoy this beautiful spirit. This experience will remain in their hearts forever.”

On Saturday, Nelson became the first Latter-day Saint president to meet with a Catholic pontiff.

“We had a most cordial, unforgettable experience with [Pope Francis]. He was most gracious and warm and welcoming,” he said. “How fortunate the Catholic people are to have such a gracious, concerned, loving and capable leader.”

(Photo courtesy of the Vatican) Pope Francis welcomes President Russell M. Nelson to the Vatican on Saturday, March 9, 2019.

The two global religious leaders discussed their faiths’ joint efforts to relieve human suffering around the world, touted the importance of religious liberty and lamented the rise of secularization at the expense of declining belief in God.

Latter-day Saints view temples as houses of God, places where devout members can participate in hallowed rites, including eternal marriage. Those marriages now will be solemnized in the Eternal City.

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The Rome Italy Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.