ROME – Face to face at the Vatican, President Joe Biden held extended and highly personal talks with Pope Francis on Friday and came away saying the pontiff told him he was a “good Catholic” and should keep receiving Communion, although conservatives have called for him to be denied the sacrament because of his support for abortion rights.
The world’s two most prominent Roman Catholics ran overtime in their discussions on climate change, poverty and the coronavirus pandemic, a warm conversation that also touched on the loss of president’s adult son and included jokes about aging well.
Biden said abortion did not come up in the meeting. “We just talked about the fact he was happy that I was a good Catholic and I should keep receiving Communion,” Biden said.
The president’s support for abortion rights and same-sex marriage has put him at odds with many U.S. bishops, some of whom have suggested he should be denied Communion. American bishops are due to meet in their annual fall conference in mid-November, and will find themselves debating a possible rebuke of a U.S. president just weeks after their boss spent so much time with Biden that all their subsequent meetings were thrown off by an hour.
Video released by the Vatican showed several warm, relaxed moments between Francis and Biden as they repeatedly shook hands and smiled. Francis often sports a dour look, especially in official photos, but he seemed in good spirits Friday. The private meeting lasted about 75 minutes, according to the Vatican, more than double the normal length of an audience with the pontiff,
The pair sat across from each other at a desk in the papal library, accompanied by a translator. They then proceeded to an exchange of gifts and a broader meeting including the first lady and top officials.
“Biden thanked His Holiness for his advocacy for the world’s poor and those suffering from hunger, conflict, and persecution,” the White House said. "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.”
Biden takes pride in his Catholic faith, using it as a moral guidepost to shape his social and economic policies. He wears a rosary and attends Mass weekly.
After leaving the Vatican, Biden said that he had a “wonderful” meeting and that the pope prayed for him and blessed his rosary beads. He said the prayer was about “peace.”
A dozen Swiss Guards in their blue and gold striped uniforms and red-plumed helmets stood at attention in the San Damaso courtyard as Biden and his wife, Jill, arrived. They were received by Monsignor Leonardo Sapienza, who runs the papal household, and then greeted one by one the papal ushers, or papal gentlemen, who lined up in the courtyard.
“It’s good to be back,” Biden said as he shook the hand of one of them. “I’m Jill’s husband,” he told another before he was ushered into the frescoed Apostolic Palace and taken upstairs to the pope’s private library.
According to the Vatican, Biden presented Francis with a woven chasuble, or liturgical vestment, made in 1930 by the famed papal tailor Gammarelli and used by the pope’s Jesuit order in the U.S., where it was held in the archives of Holy Trinity Church, Biden’s regular parish in Washington. The White House said it would make a donation to charity in the pope’s name.
Biden also slipped what's known as a challenge coin into the pope's palm during a handshake, and hailed Francis as “the most significant warrior for peace I’ve ever met.”
The personalized coin depicts Biden's home state of Delaware and a reference to his late son Beau's military unit, the 261st Theater Tactical Signal Brigade. Biden told Francis that Beau, who died of brain cancer in 2015, would have wanted him to present the coin to the pope.
"The tradition is, and I’m only kidding about this, but next time I see you, if you don’t have it, you have to buy the drinks," Biden said, referring to the coin. He added: “I’m the only Irishman you’ve ever met who's never had a drink.”
Francis laughed and responded: “The Irish brought whiskey.”
Biden, 78, also relayed the story of American baseball player Satchel Paige, a Black pitcher who played late into his fifties, in a parable about aging. “'How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?" Biden quoted Paige as saying. "You’re 65, I’m 60,” Biden added, as Francis, 84, pointed to his head and laughed.
Francis presented Biden with a ceramic tile depicting the iconography of the pilgrim, as well as a collection of the pope’s main teaching documents, the Vatican said. In the Vatican video, he could be heard asking Jill Biden to “pray for me.”
The warm encounter stood in stark contrast to Donald Trump’s 2017 meeting with Francis, with whom the former president had a prickly relationship. Photos from that 30-minute meeting showed a stone-faced Francis standing beside a grinning Trump. Biden's meeting also was longer than the 52 minutes Barack Obama spent with Francis in 2014.
Biden is visiting Rome and then Glasgow for back-to-back summits, first a gathering for leaders of the Group of 20 leading and developing nations and then a global climate conference.
Biden and Francis have previously met three times, but Friday's encounter was their first since Biden became president.
Biden also met separately Friday with G-20 summit hosts Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi. He ended the day with French President Emmanuel Macron, trying anew to smooth relations after the U.S. and U.K. decided to provide nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, scotching a lucrative French contract in the process.
Biden’s meeting with Pope Francis generated some controversy in advance as the Vatican on Thursday abruptly canceled plans to broadcast the meeting with Biden live and denied independent press access. Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said the revised television plan reflected the virus protocol for all heads of state audiences, though he didn’t say why more robust live TV coverage had been initially scheduled and then canceled.
The Vatican instead provided edited footage of the encounter to accredited media.
The Vatican spokesman declined to comment on Biden’s remarks about Communion, noting that the Vatican doesn’t comment on the pope’s private conversations beyond what is written in the official communique, which made no mention of the issue.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement after the Vatican meeting that didn't address Biden’s remark about Communion. Instead, the statement suggested that the president would not be singled out in any document emerging from the bishops’ meeting next month.
The document “is intended to speak to the beauty of meeting Jesus Christ in the Eucharist and is addressed to all Catholics,” the statement said.
There was no immediate response to queries sent by The Associated Press to seven bishops engaged in the debate.
Francis has stressed that he will not reject political leaders who support abortion rights, though Catholic policy allows individual bishops to choose whether to prevent people from taking Communion.
AP Religion Writer David Crary in New York contributed to this report.
This story was first published on Oct. 29, 2021. It was updated on Oct. 30, 2021, to correct that the Swiss Guards were wearing red-plumed helmets, not red-plumed halberds.