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US President Joe Biden meets Catholic pontiff, Pope Francis ahead of G-20

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U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Pope Francis in the Vatican on Friday, in what is branded as a personal and political audience, ahead of the G-20 leaders’ summit in Rome about the global economy, followed by a summit on climate change in Glasgow, Scotland.

The president and first lady Jill Biden were welcomed by the head of Papal Household, Monsignor Leonardo Sapienza. Around noon the first couple had a private audience with the pope before participating in a broader delegate meeting, which on the U.S. side included Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jen O‘Malley Dillon.

The White House declined to say whether Biden will take Holy Communion from Pope Francis – a sensitive issue amid demands from some that a Catholic president who supports abortion should be barred from it.

“That’s something that’s very personal, as you can imagine,” Principal Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told VOA aboard Air Force One on the way to Rome. “His faith is something that’s very personal to him. I don’t have anything to share at this time about that.”


Biden will likely face the issues of gender, sexuality and reproduction, as he has tried over the years to reconcile his strong Roman Catholic faith with his duty to lead an explicitly secular government.

Francis once guided the Biden family through personal grief and perches permanently behind the president’s shoulder in a framed photo that overlooks the Oval Office.

The two have met three times and exchanged letters, administration officials said, and Biden met with both of Francis’ predecessors. During a visit to the United States in 2015, Biden has said, the pope took time to talk with the future president and his family not long after the death of Biden’s son, Beau.

This papal audience will not be filmed live. On Thursday, the Vatican canceled a planned live broadcast of the meeting.

This is more than just a visit between two powerful men with millions of fans and at least as many critics. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on Thursday the meeting, while primarily personal, would also cover important policy issues. The White House said the two, accompanied by first lady Jill Biden, would “discuss working together on efforts grounded in respect for fundamental human dignity, including ending the COVID-19 pandemic, tackling the climate crisis and caring for the poor.”

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“First, there’ll be the obvious personal dimension,” Sullivan said. “… And they will have a chance just to reflect, each of them, on their view of what’s happening in the world. On policy issues, of course, in the international realm, they’ll be talking about climate and migration and income inequality and other issues that are very top of mind for both of them.”

The world’s most powerful Catholics — President Joe Biden and Pope Francis — renewed their close relationship on Friday, holding a 90-minute meeting that was twice as long as the one the President held with Pope John Paul II in one of his first meetings with a pontiff.

The engagement between the two “was very warm when the delegation arrived in the room,” an official said. “There was laughter and clear rapport between President Biden and the Pope.”

“President Biden thanked His Holiness for his advocacy for the world’s poor and those suffering from hunger, conflict, and persecution. He lauded Pope Francis’ leadership in fighting the climate crisis, as well as his advocacy to ensure the pandemic ends for everyone through vaccine sharing and an equitable global economic recovery,” the White House said in a statement.

The President’s vehicle pulled to a stop in an interior courtyard of the Vatican at noon local time, and both stepped out from their limo, which was bearing the flag of the Holy See.

They were greeted by Monsignor Leonardo Sapienza, head of Papal Household, and other Vatican officials.

As he went down a receiving line shaking hands, Biden repeatedly said it was “good to be back.” At one point, he introduced himself by saying, “I’m Jill’s husband.”

Biden took part in an initial one-on-one meeting with Francis, which lasted 90 minutes, before participating in an expanded bilateral meeting with several members of the Biden administration as well as Francis and Vatican officials. The President and American officials are next participating in a meeting with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State.

Despite footage of the outdoor arrival, the visit has been clouded by severe restrictions on press coverage; independent journalists will not be allowed to see the two men meeting at all, and no live pictures of the Pope greeting Biden will be transmitted.

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Biden was the 14th US president to meet with a pope at the Vatican. President Woodrow Wilson was the first to do so in 1919. A live broadcast of Biden’s meeting with the Pope has been canceled by the Vatican over the objections of journalists.

A personal meeting

The meeting was heavy with symbolism for the nation’s second Catholic President, who attends Mass almost every week, makes the sign of the cross during his speeches and displays a photo of Francis in the Oval Office alongside frames of his wife and grandchildren.

Typically, world leaders offer a gift to the pope at the Vatican during their visits and — given Francis’ humble approach to the papacy — the gift is not likely to be extravagant.

Jesuit Father Thomas Reese, a columnist for the Religious News Service and a former chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, told CNN that “the priority is to look for areas where they can work together with the leader who’s visiting. And if there’s problems with the country, to at least incrementally improve relations with them.”

“It’s a big difference whether you’re meeting with Joe Biden or with the head of China,” he added.

Biden’s long history meeting with popes
Francis is the third pope Biden has met, following meetings with Pope John Paul II while Biden was in the Senate and Pope Benedict XVI during his time as vice president.

Biden met with John Paul II several times, first kicked off by a lengthy meeting at the Vatican in 1980 to discuss the impacts of the potential collapse of the Soviet bloc, when Biden said the pope had to wave away aides who knocked on the library door several times during the conversation. But the President appears to have forged an even more personal bond with Pope Francis.

Biden arrives at the meeting having already met Francis on several occasions, including when he attended Francis’ installation in Rome in 2013 and when he traveled there again for the medical summit three years later.

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Yet it was Francis’ visit to Washington in 2015 that drove the two men together in new ways.

During his stop in Washington, Francis and Biden were briefly neighbors when the Pope overnighted at the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See, just across Massachusetts Avenue from the vice president’s residence.

Biden accompanied Francis on many of his stops, including greeting him at the airport and sitting in the front row when he received an elaborate state welcome at the White House. Biden was sitting just behind Francis on the rostrum in the House chamber when the Pope delivered an address to Congress, he stood beside Francis during his speech to a crowd on the National Mall from the Speaker’s balcony and he saw the Pope off in Philadelphia after the private meeting with his family.

Francis clearly left an impression on Biden during that visit.

In the year following the Pope’s US appearances, Biden wrote in a short profile for Time Magazine’s “Time 100” that his Holiness “captivated America” during the trip. And some five years later, as he was preparing to assume the presidency, he still recalled the private meeting in Philadelphia.

“I am a great admirer of His Holiness. I really am,” Biden added.

The relationship between the two men, the White House has said, “is very personal.”

Unlike his past meetings with Francis, Biden is now the president, elevating their talks to an official encounter between two heads of state. Still, it is unlikely Biden’s deep Catholic faith will not inform and guide his audience.

The tone for this anticipated dynamic between two heads of state appears to have been set since Francis’ call congratulating Biden on his presidential win last November.

At the time, the Biden-Harris transition team said in a statement that the “president-elect expressed his desire to work together on the basis of a shared belief in the dignity and equality of all humankind on issues such as caring for the marginalized and the poor, addressing the crisis of climate change, and welcoming and integrating immigrants and refugees into our communities.”

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