Popes and Presidents: Biden is the 14th US President to visit the Vatican


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

VATICAN CITY – Almost 60 years have passed since a Catholic President of the United States visited a Pope in the Vatican.

When President John F. Kennedy was preparing 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 which might have been problematic for a president already in the making. grappling with questions about whether her church or her country came first.

The Pope didn’t seem to mind shaking his hand.

Protocols and Popes have changed. Today, Pope Francis prefers that guests do not 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 mostly come from the Catholic community because of his support for legalized abortion.

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

The first US President to visit the Vatican was Woodrow Wilson, who met Pope Benedict XV in 1919 during 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 visited the Vatican.

The meeting with Pope Paul VI was Kennedy in 1963; Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967; Richard M. Nixon in 1969 and 1970; and Gerald R. Ford in 1975.

Jimmy Carter was 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 in Castel Gandolfo and at the Vatican in 2002 and 2004. In addition to attending the funeral of Pope John Paul in 2005, he visited the Vatican in 2007 and again in 2008 to meet Pope Benedict XVI.

Kennedy’s time at 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 the Papal and Presidential Seals for the Pope – but also a speech of Pope Paul.

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

Meeting with Kennedy, Pope Paul commended the United States as a “noble nation” that had been and continued to be generous in helping the poorest nations of the world, and he commended the President for promoting “the superior moral principles of truth, justice and freedom. In his speeches.

Conscious of the ongoing movement for civil rights, the Pope declared that Saint John XXIII “again presented to the world the constant teaching of the Church on the dignity of the individual human person, a dignity which the Almighty Creator granted by creating man in his image and likeness. . “

“We are always aware in our prayers of the efforts to guarantee to all your citizens the same 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.

Pope Paul greeted President Lyndon B. Johnson at the Apostolic Palace at 9 pm on December 23, 1967. The late hour meant no official speech. But the Vatican’s longer-than-usual statement on the meeting said the two focused on the war in Vietnam and the Pope’s “deep and painful apprehension” of the escalating conflict and its victims. .

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

Abortion became legal across the United States with the Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade in 1973. In addition to always reminding the United States of its responsibility to promote peace and aid 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 speech is not expected as part of President Biden’s visit.

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

Biden knows what Pope Francis thinks about abortion; it’s hard to guess if the two will be talking about this specifically.


Kevin E. Boling