Popes and presidents: Biden is the 14th US president to visit the Vatican

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Nearly 60 years have passed since a Catholic president of the United States visited a pope in the Vatican.

When President John F. Kennedy prepared for his meeting with the new Pope Paul VI in July 1963, people wondered if he would kiss the pope’s ring, a traditional sign of deference, but one that could have been problematic for a president already grappling with questions about whether his church or his country came first.

The pope didn’t seem embarrassed to shake his hand.

Protocols and popes have changed. Today, Pope Francis prefers guests not to kiss his ring.

President Joe Biden will be the 14th US president – ​​and the second Catholic president – ​​to meet with a pope at the Vatican.

Unlike Kennedy, questions about Biden’s faith come mostly from the Catholic community because of his support for legalized abortion.

President John F. Kennedy shakes hands with Pope Paul VI at the Vatican on July 2, 1963. When Pope Francis meets U.S. President Joe Biden at the Vatican on October 29, it will be only the second time a Catholic president has met the Pope in the Vatican. (CNS file photo)

Pope Francis is due to welcome Biden to the Vatican at noon on October 29, shortly after the president arrives in Italy to attend the G-20 summit, which will focus on the COVID-19 pandemic and global health, economy world and the climate. cash.

The first American president to visit the Vatican was Woodrow Wilson, who met Pope Benedict XV in 1919 while on a European tour after World War I. Then, 40 years later, Dwight D. Eisenhower met Pope John XXIII in 1959.

Since then, every American president has made a trip to the Vatican.

Meeting Pope Paul VI were Kennedy in 1963; Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967; Richard M. Nixon in 1969 and 1970; and Gerald R. Ford in 1975.

Jimmy Carter was the next to visit, meeting Pope John Paul in 1980. Ronald Reagan met him in 1982 and 1987, as well as after leaving office. George HW Bush met him in 1989 and 1991. Bill Clinton came to the Vatican in 1994.

George W. Bush met Pope John Paul in 2001 at the papal villa of Castel Gandolfo and at the Vatican in 2002 and 2004. In addition to attending Pope John Paul’s funeral in 2005, he visited the Vatican in 2007 and again in 2008 to meet Pope Benedict XVI.

President Barack Obama met at the Vatican with Pope Benedict in 2009 and Pope Francis in 2014. And President Donald Trump had his Vatican audience with Pope Francis in 2017.

Kennedy’s stay in the Apostolic Palace included a private meeting with the Pope and an exchange of gifts – a copy of Michelangelo’s Pietà for the President and a desk set engraved with papal and presidential seals for the Pope – but also a speech by Pope Paul.

A formal address to a visiting president was a staple of papal audiences in the pontificates of St. Paul VI and St. John Paul II, but it has now disappeared.

Meeting Kennedy, Pope Paul praised the United States as a “noble nation” that had been and continues to be generous in helping the world’s poorest nations, and he praised the president for having promoted “the higher moral principles of truth, justice and freedom. in his speeches.

Mindful of the ongoing civil rights movement, the pope said St. John XXIII “represented to the world the constant teaching of the Church on the dignity of the individual human person, a dignity which the almighty Creator has granted by creating man in his image and likeness.

“We are ever mindful in our prayers of the efforts to secure to all your citizens the equal benefits of citizenship, which are based on the equality of all men by reason of their dignity as persons and children of God”, the pope told Kennedy.

President Lyndon B. Johnson visits Pope Paul VI at the Vatican Apostolic Palace on December 23, 1967. The Vatican’s statement on the meeting said the two focused on the war in Vietnam and the “deep and painful apprehension” of the pope in the face of the escalating conflict and its victims. (CNS Photo/Yoichi Okamoto, LBJ Library)

Pope Paul welcomed President Lyndon B. Johnson to the Apostolic Palace at 9 p.m. on December 23, 1967. The late hour meant that there were no official speeches. But the Vatican’s longer-than-usual statement on the meeting said the pair focused on the war in Vietnam and the pope’s ‘deep and painful apprehension’ over the escalating conflict and its casualties. .

As Christmas approached, the Pope presented Johnson with a 16th-century Nativity painting. The president presented the pope with a bust of himself, which the Vatican yearbook, “Attività della Santa Sede”, describes only as “a beautiful bronze sculpture”.

Abortion became legal in the United States with the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade in 1973. In addition to always reminding the United States of its responsibility to promote peace and assist in development, Pope John Paul’s speeches to visiting American presidents have consistently called for respect for human life from conception to natural death.

A papal address is not scheduled as part of President Biden’s visit.

Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, said the two “will discuss working together on efforts grounded in respect for basic human dignity, including ending the COVID-19 pandemic, combating climate crisis and caring for the poor”.

Biden knows how Pope Francis feels about abortion; it’s hard to guess if the two will talk about it specifically.

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Copyright © 2021 Catholic News Service/United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

Kevin E. Boling