The world’s most powerful Catholics – President Joe Biden and Pope Francis – held 90 minutes of talks Friday in a session that blended the official and personal sides of the most devout US leader in decades.
After, Biden said Francis had told him he was pleased he was a “good Catholic,” and that he should continue receiving communion, despite opposition from some conservative American bishops over his support for abortion.
Even during the most formal of diplomatic occasions, Biden demonstrated an easy familiarity with a pope he has now met four times.
“God love ya,” he declared as they walked side-by-side through the papal offices, a familiar Biden-ism that was perhaps never more true.
The meeting stretched twice as long as the one Biden held with Pope John Paul II as a young senator. While the White House said afterward that topics like climate change and Covid-19 arose, Biden told reporters he discussed “a lot of personal things” with the pontiff.
The lengthy meeting, he said, was “wonderful.”
It was a signal of just how much weight Biden had placed in his first audience with Francis as president. Biden, alongside first lady Jill Biden, returned to the Vatican to meet a Pope who has provided both familial comfort and ideological inspiration to a President whose faith has long underpinned his public and private lives.
In extraordinary footage from inside, a talkative Biden engaged in a warm chat with Francis as they exchanged gifts and introduced each others’ delegations. At one point, Biden presented Francis a special coin with a deep personal significance: it bore the insignia of the 261st Signal Brigade, the Delaware National Guard unit in which his late son Beau served as a captain.
“I know my son would want me to give it to you,” Biden said. In 2015, the Pope privately counseled Biden and members of his family in the months following Beau Biden’s death.
Biden explained the coins are given to “warriors and leaders,” and called Francis “the most significant warrior for peace I’ve ever met.”
Later, the two men – both of whom ascended to their powerful positions relatively late in life – laughed over a philosophy of aging Biden attributed to the baseball player Satchel Paige.
“How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?” Biden asked, before giving his answer: “You’re 65,” he said. “I’m 60.”
A senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said papal officials were struck by the length of the meeting. The two discussed climate change, Covid-19 and migration, the official said.
“The cardinals who were tending to the rest of us were repeatedly exclaiming every eight to 10 minutes or so, after 30, that this was highly unusual and they’ve never seen things go that long. So clearly, the two men had a lot to talk about,” the official said.
“I think the word personal is really important in this regard. This was a policy meeting. It was also a personal meeting,” the official added. “And to understand how the two of them spent those 90 minutes, you have to understand both aspects of those. I’m obviously not in a position to comment on the personal piece of it, but it was certainly an important part of his experience in that meeting with Pope Francis.”
Despite footage of an outdoor arrival, Biden’s visit was clouded somewhat by severe restrictions on press coverage; independent journalists were not allowed to see the two men meeting at all, and no live pictures of the Pope greeting Biden were transmitted.
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.
In pictures: Popes and US presidents
A personal meeting
Discussions about diverging viewpoints have occurred in meetings between popes and US presidents, such as when Pope John Paul II failed to convince President George W. Bush to halt the American invasion of Iraq.
Biden’s meeting Friday 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.
It was the first time Biden visited the Vatican since 2016, when he was still reeling from the loss of his son Beau to cancer a year earlier.
The reason for that visit was the Third International Regenerative Medicine Conference, and – in a speech delivered with a massive bronze sculpture of the Resurrection as his backdrop – Biden made an impassioned call for developing new cures for the disease that took his son’s life.
But he also recalled a moment of kindness from Francis, who visited the United States in the months following Beau’s death and gathered with Biden’s extended family as he departed the states from the Philadelphia International Airport.
“We had just lost my son,” Biden said at the start of his speech. “And he met with my extended family in the hangar behind where the aircraft was. And I wish every grieving parent, brother, sister, mother, father, would have the benefit of his words, his prayers, his presence. He provided us with more comfort that even he, I think, will understand.”
Ahead of their meeting on Friday, 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
Biden has long found himself navigating the delicate politics that come with being a Catholic Democrat who supports abortion rights and gay marriage. Those convictions have often put him at odds with leaders in the church.
It’s an issue that’s long frustrated him, saying once in 2005, “The next Republican that tells me I’m not religious, I’m going to shove my rosary down their throat.”
American bishops moved forward with a plan that tried to to permit individual bishops to deny communion to politicians who support abortion rights, setting up a potential public rebuke of Biden along with other prominent Catholic Democrats, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But the conference has underscored that “there will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians.” And the latest draft of the document on the “meaning of the Eucharist,” which US bishops will vote on in mid-November, will reportedly not refer specifically to whether Catholic politicians are eligible to receive Communion. However, bishops can propose making amendments to the documents.
Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the archbishop for Washington, DC, has said he will not deny the President communion.
The communion refusal movement is driven by the extremely conservative wing of the Catholic Church, and any official statement on the matter would need to be approved by the Vatican.
Reached for comment, the conference referred CNN to the Vatican.
While Francis has maintained a staunch opposition to abortion, describing it as “murder,” he has avoided taking a firm stance on the idea of denying communion to politicians who support it. He said last month that politics should not influence decisions about receiving communion and called for “compassion and tenderness” in those decisions.
Biden has dismissed the effort, telling reporters over the summer it was a “private matter” that he did not believe would be successful.
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 arrived 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.
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.
“He didn’t just speak about Beau, he spoke in detail about Beau, about who he was and about family values and about forgiveness and decency,” Biden told Stephen Colbert in December.
“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 the 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.”
Biden’s journey of faith
Biden wrote in 2019 that he learned Catholic values “at my father’s dinner table, at Sunday Mass and at St. Paul’s and Holy Rosary Elementary.” Nuns at school, he said, taught him “reading, writing, math and history – as well as core concepts of decency, fair play and virtue.” He often wears his late son’s rosary on his wrist, and in public life, he’s frequently talked about the role faith has played in carrying him through grief – including the fatal car crash that killed his wife and infant daughter and Beau’s battle with cancer.
Biden has long attended mass, and it’s remained a near-weekly tradition since he’s taken office.
On the weekend of Biden’s Vatican visit, the President’s Washington, DC-based parish – Holy Trinity Catholic Church – told CNN it would deliver an intercessory prayer “that the meeting between Pope Francis and President Biden be blessed with wisdom and inspire the necessary actions to address the crisis of climate change. We pray to the Lord.”
Robert Krebs, a spokesperson for Biden’s Wilmington-based church – St. Joseph on the Brandywine – and the city’s diocese, said in a statement that “we pray that open and honest discussion between these two leaders will be productive in addressing the many challenges facing our country and world.”
Biden, who himself thought of becoming a priest after the deaths of his wife and daughter, maintains friendships and seeks guidance of several people in the spiritual community. A source familiar with the situation told CNN the President maintains a “circle of friends close to him, with whom he talks freely about his faith in spiritual matters.”
“The President speaks freely about his faith. And he speaks about it with a number of people,” the source added.
That broad circle includes White House meetings with a number of faith leaders to discuss Biden’s policy agenda, as well as personal friendships with clergy such as Wilmington Rev. Silvester S. Beaman; Sister Simone Campbell, the former executive director of NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice; and Father Kevin O’Brien, a Jesuit priest who resigned from his role as president of Santa Clara University in May following an investigation into conversations he had with graduate students at a series of informal dinners. The investigation found he engaged in behavior “inconsistent with established Jesuit protocols and boundaries” at those dinners, and that they involved alcohol. No inappropriate behavior was found outside those dinners, according to a statement from the university.