ROME – They’re the world’s two most powerful Catholics. Both are under attack by conservative wings of their faith.
But whether President Joe Biden and Pope Francis commiserated, or discussed issues like abortion on which they disagree, during their nearly 90 minute-meeting Friday is unknown.
The confab at the Vatican was closed to the press, including barring the TV cameras that typically are allowed in at the beginning of such meetings.
Notably, the one-on-one conversation lasted considerably longer than the pope’s conversations with the last two presidents. President Donald Trump met with Francis for half an hour in 2017. President Barack Obama spoke with him for about 50 minutes in 2014.
In a video the Vatican released after the meeting, showing the leaders exchanging gifts, one of Biden’s to the pontiff echoed the themes of both toughness under attack and their shared hope for a more peaceful word.
While Biden said he wasn’t sure whether it was appropriate, he gave Francis a military coin that he said American presidents bestow on warriors and leaders.
“And you are the most significant warrior for peace I’ve ever met,” he said, before enclosing the coin in Francis’ palm with his own hand.
Biden noted that, in addition to including the U.S. seal, the coin commemorates his late son’s national guard unit from Delaware.
If Francis doesn’t have the coin the next time they meet, Biden joked, the tradition is that he has to buy the drinks.
“I’m the only Irishman you’ve ever met who’s never had a drink,” the tea-totaling president added.
Biden also joked about their ages – positing that both feel a lot younger than their respective years of 78 and 84 – before capping the meeting with one of his familiar expressions that took on a greater significance at the Vatican.
“God love ya!” Biden told Francis.
Biden later told reporters the meeting had been “wonderful.”
It was only the second time in history a Catholic U.S. president is meeting with the pope.
Biden’s motorcade arrived at the Vatican just before noon Rome time and was greeted by a dozen Swiss Guards in blue and gold striped uniforms.
Biden and first lady Jill Biden shook hands with Monsignor Leonardo Sapienza, the head of Papal Household, in the San Damaso courtyard and then greeted a receiving line of about a half-dozen papal ushers, or gentlemen.
“It’s good to be back,” Biden said as he shook the hand of one of his greeters. “I’m Jill’s husband,” he said to another before he was ushered into the frescoed Apostolic Palace and taken upstairs to the pope’s private library.
The Vatican said it canceled the planned live broadcast of the beginning of the meeting because of the coronavirus.
The White House said after the meeting that Biden lauded the pope’s leadership in fighting the climate crises and in advocating for an equitable global economic recovery from the pandemic.
Before the meeting, much attention was put on whether the leaders would discuss an issue on which they disagree – Biden’s support for abortion rights.
One of the agenda items for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops when it convenes in Baltimore in mid-November is whether Catholic politicians who support abortion rights should be admonished for receiving Holy Communion.
This summer, the bishops overwhelmingly approved the drafting of a “teaching document” that many of them hope will rebuke Catholic politicians for receiving communion despite their support for abortion rights. Though any document is unlikely to mention Biden by name, its passage would be a clear admonition of the U.S. president.
Catholic politicians and abortion
The meeting between the president and the pontiff comes amid a push by conservative bishops in the U.S. to keep politicians who support abortion rights from receiving Communion.
Analysts said it was doubtful that Francis would challenge Biden’s support of abortion rights and same-sex marriage during their meeting but would instead focus on issues where they could find common ground.
The White House said the focus would be on concerns grounded in human dignity, including ending the COVID-19 pandemic, tackling the climate crisis, and caring for the poor.
Though Friday’s meeting marked the first time Biden and Francis have met since Biden became president, they have met three times before.
In 2013, when Biden was vice president, he led the U.S. delegation to Francis’ formal installation as pope. The two men met again when the pontiff visited the U.S. in 2015 and when Biden visited the Vatican in 2016 to speak about cancer prevention at a conference on regenerative medicine.
After some private time with the pope Friday, Biden’s meeting was expanded to include other U.S. and Vatican officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Biden was scheduled to meet later with the Cardinal Secretary of State, followed by meetings with Italy’s president and prime minister and with French President Emmanuel Macron.
Contributing: The Associated Press