For the first time the official website of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints includes a picture of the meeting between a President of the Church, Russell M. Nelson, and a Pope. By now this is old news, but it was a historic event, whose effects will continue for a long time, because this was the first-ever meeting between a Latter-day Saint prophet and a Catholic pope.
According to Deseret News, the two leaders met for 33 minutes at the Vatican to discuss the shared priorities of protecting religious rights, traditional family values and young people and opposing secularism.
There are about 16 million members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the world, and when compared to the more than 1.1 billion Catholics, they are a very small group. This may explain why the Vatican offered no details of Francis’ Saturday audience, while many details were offered by the leaders and the press associated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
But in a time when many are criticizing and leaving organized religion, even though there might be core differences in doctrine, the two faiths share common objectives, and are working together in many humanitarian projects across the globe.
Interfaith dialogue has been a practice of Latter-day Saint leaders from the early day of the Church. Since becoming leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2018, President Nelson has engaged with Roman Catholic churchmen during several of his travels.
In Utah, the Church has developed strong relationships in recent decades with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, and the two faiths work together in many humanitarian efforts.
Deseret News reports that a meeting between men in these positions “would have been unimaginable to leaders and members in both churches” until at least the 1960s, when followers officially were told to limit interactions with other faiths, including weddings and funerals. But behind-the-scenes connections were happening, and have intensified in the past decade.
According to the Newsroom of the Church of Jesus Christ, following the 33-minute meeting, President Nelson said: “We had a most cordial, unforgettable experience. His Holiness, he was most gracious and warm and welcoming. What a sweet, wonderful man he is, and how fortunate the Catholic people are to have such a gracious, concerned, loving and capable leader.”
The Washington Posts reports comments by Kathleen Flake, a historian of American religion and an expert on the Latter-day Saints. She reminds that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that it isn’t just generically “Christian” but that is the authentic restoration of Jesus’s church. Nelson and Francis, she said, are unique. “Are there any other men but those two who believe they stand in the shoes of St. Peter?”
Having been raised a member of the Catholic church in Italy, where I later became a member of the Church of Jesus Christ, I have experienced the doctrinal conflict that exist between the two churches and the social ostracism that may follow a person who decides to leave the Catholic church. This can become a serious problem, but it is the common lot of those who are a minority in many place of the world. I survived, and learned from that experience to be more tolerant of those who think differently.
However, I know how important is for the members of the Church of Jesus Christ, who live in Italy, to finally have a Temple and to learn about this cordial meeting between the leaders of the two faiths. They want the people in Italy to know that they strive to follow the Savior, and that they are not part of some strange “cult” (word that is often used with the purpose of disparaging other people’s beliefs).
Pope Francis and President Nelson may deeply disagree on doctrinal issues, but they have shown that it is possible to find and work together toward common goals, while having different beliefs. We can all agree to disagree, and be agreeable about it.
Religious differences should never be the cause of persecution or hate. The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “While one portion of the human race is judging and condemning the other without mercy, the Great Parent of the Universe looks upon the whole of the human family with a fatherly care and paternal regard; he views them as his offspring…”
We are all God’s children, we should always remember this.