WASHINGTON — A small group of political and religious leaders from the United States, including Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, met privately with Pope Francis at the Vatican today.
Part of a multiday, unofficial visit to Italy to promote ecumenical prayer and interfaith understanding, Lee was joined in the private audience by former U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne; Lakewood Church pastor and televangelist Joel Osteen; Tim Timmons, a pastor and author based in Newport Beach, California; and Gayle D. Beebe, president of Westmont College, an evangelical school in Santa Barbara, California.
Lee said The International Foundation, a private nonprofit, arranged the trip.
The Utah Republican conversed with the Pope in Spanish, which is the pontiff's mother tongue, about the need for faith in Jesus Christ and to build families. Lee, who served a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, speaks fluent Spanish.
"I was told it would not only be the proper protocol, but also appreciated if I were to address him in Spanish," Lee said in a telephone interview from Rome. "The invitation to meet came from Pope Francis' desire to invite more people to come unto Jesus Christ," he added.
Lee said Francis asked his guests to pray that more people would serve and protect the family.
According to a Westmont College statement, the pontiff "invited the Protestant leaders to discuss the question: 'Can we find common ground in order to advance the life and ministry of Jesus so more people can experience the joy of Christian faith?'"
Lee and his wife were apparently the only members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the delegation.
"There was a very good spirit with him. I enjoyed the interaction," Lee added. "He's a very humble man."
Lee said he told Francis about the ecumenical prayer breakfasts held in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, and that the pope replied he supported such ventures. But beyond that and the usual pleasantries, Lee said, the pontiff had no specific message for him.
During his days in Rome, Lee said, he observed Francis in action when the pope met with more than 50,000 charismatic Roman Catholics during a worship service at Rome's Olympic Stadium. After arriving in a Ford Focus and asking the crowd for prayers, Lee said, the pontiff knelt on the ground to pray, the traditional "kneeler" cushion not being available.
A former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, Francis Rooney, applauded the pope for meeting with the group. "I think the Pope, in reaching out, is broadening the concept of ecumenical dialogue, and he's reaching out to people who can touch other Christians," Rooney said
He noted that Pope John XXIII reached out to Jewish leaders, "having served as a papal nuncio (ambassador) and appreciated (their) plight" during World War II. And Pope John Paul II, who along with John XXIII was canonized in April, continued the outreach to Jews and included Eastern and other Orthodox Christian leaders, Rooney explained, and now Francis is widening the circle.
"This pope's a whirlwind," Rooney said. "He's making a great contribution to the world, I think. He's doing great things for the world. … I think the Pope, in reaching out, is broadening the concept of ecumenical dialogue and he's reaching out to people who can touch other Christians."
Lee also met with Cardinal George Pell, former Roman Catholic archbishop of Sydney and current prefect of the Vatican's Secretariat for the Economy, and Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family. He said his talks included a discussion on unemployment and the need to help out-of-work individuals keep and maintain hope.
The senator said the group had met with "30 or 40 members of the Italian parliament from every political persuasion" about the possibility of organizing similar prayer breakfasts for that body to the ones conducted in Washington.
He also met with Angelino Alfano, Italy's interior minister, who noted the 70th anniversary this week of the "D-Day" invasion of Europe and America's efforts "to save Italy from fascism," Lee said
The visit by the delegation is part of what appears to be a greater outreach by Francis to non-Catholics in an effort to spur Christian unity and interchange. While previous popes, particularly St. John Paul II, were noted for interreligious dialogue, Francis hosted a number of non-Catholic leaders at the Vatican shortly after his election last year, including General Linda Bond, who was then serving as international leader of The Salvation Army.
During his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis, then known as Cardinal Jose Mario Bergoglio, engaged in active interfaith dialogues with Rabbi Abraham Skorka as well as Sheik Omar Abboud, the former Islamic Center of Argentina secretary-general. Both clerics accompanied Francis to Jordan and Israel during his recent journey there.
Lee's audience with Pope Francis came more than a century after another prominent Utahn has met with the top Roman Catholic leader at the Vatican. According to Orson Whitney's History of Utah, Sen. Thomas Kearns, himself a Catholic, traveled to Rome in April 1901, where he had an audience with Pope Leo XIII and "received his blessing." Michael Kearns of Silver King Publishing and a descendant of the late senator, confirmed the account in an email that noted that Perry Heath, then-publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune, also attended the meeting.
The International Foundation is also known as The Fellowship Foundation. The nonprofit's website describes its purpose as encouraging "one another and people throughout the world to carry out the first and Great Commandment 'to love God first' and 'to love your neighbor as yourself.' This is accomplished by seeking to adhere to the teachings and precepts of Jesus."
The group is also involved in the National Prayer Breakfast held in Washington, D.C., each February. Lee spoke this year at a dinner connected to that event.