By JOSH BOAK, ZEKE MILLER and NICOLE WINFIELD
ROME (AP) – Face to face in the Vatican, President Joe Biden had extended and very personal talks with Pope Francis on Friday and left saying that the pontiff had told him he was a “good Catholic” and that ‘He should continue to receive Communion, although the Conservatives have requested that he be denied the sacrament because of his support for the right to abortion.
The world’s two most prominent Roman Catholics worked overtime in their talks on climate change, poverty and the coronavirus pandemic, a warm conversation that also touched on the loss of the president’s adult son and included jokes about the aging well.
Biden said abortion was not discussed at the meeting. “We just talked about how happy he was that I was a good Catholic and that I should continue to receive Communion,” Biden said.
The president’s support for abortion and same-sex marriage rights has put him at odds with many American bishops, some of whom have suggested he should be denied Communion. U.S. bishops are due to meet at their annual fall conference in mid-November and will find themselves debating a possible reprimand from a U.S. president just weeks after their boss spent so much time with Biden that all their subsequent meetings were interrupted for an hour. .
A video released by the Vatican showed several warm and relaxed moments between Francis and Biden as they repeatedly shook hands and smiled. Francis often wears an austere air, especially in official photos, but he seemed in a good mood on Friday. The private meeting lasted around 75 minutes, according to the Vatican, more than double the normal length of an audience with the pontiff,
The two men were seated opposite each other at a desk in the papal library, accompanied by a translator. They then proceeded to an exchange of gifts and a larger meeting including the first lady and senior officials.
“Biden thanked His Holiness for his advocacy on behalf of the world’s poor and those suffering from hunger, conflict and persecution,” the White House said. “He praised Pope Francis’ leadership in tackling the climate crisis, as well as his advocacy to ensure an end to the pandemic for everyone through vaccine sharing and a fair global economic recovery. “
Biden takes pride in his Catholic faith, using it as a moral guide to shape his social and economic policies. He wears a rosary and attends mass every week.
After leaving the Vatican, Biden said he had a “wonderful” meeting and the Pope prayed for him and blessed his rosary. He said the prayer was for “peace”.
A dozen Swiss Guards in their blue and gold striped uniforms and red feathered helmets stood at attention in the courtyard of San Damaso as Biden and his wife, Jill arrived. They were received by Monsignor Leonardo Sapienza, who heads the papal house, then greeted one by one the papal ushers, or papal gentlemen, who were queuing in the courtyard.
“It’s good to be back,” Biden said, shaking hands with one of them. “I am Jill’s husband,” he told another before being 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 garment, made in 1930 by the famous papal tailor Gammarelli and used by the Pope’s Jesuit order in the United States, where it was kept in the archives of the Holy Trinity Church, Biden’s Washington Ordinary Parish. The White House has announced that it will donate to charity on behalf of the Pope.
Biden also slipped what is called a challenge coin into the Pope’s palm during a handshake and hailed Francis as “the most important peace warrior I have 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 Signaling Brigade. Biden told Francis that Beau, who died of brain cancer in 2015, wanted him to present the play to the Pope.
“The tradition is, and I’m kidding about it, but the next time I see you, if you don’t have it, you have to buy the drinks,” Biden said, referring to the play. He added: “I am the only Irishman you have ever met who has never drunk.”
Francis laughed and replied, “The Irish brought whiskey.”
Biden, 78, also told the story of American baseball player Satchel Paige, a black pitcher who played until his 50s, 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 his head and laughed.
Francis presented Biden with a ceramic tile depicting the pilgrim’s iconography, as well as a collection of the Pope’s main teaching documents, the Vatican said. In the Vatican video, she could be heard asking Jill Biden to “pray for me”.
The warm meeting contrasted sharply with Donald Trump’s 2017 meeting with Francis, with whom the former president had a thorny relationship. Photos from that 30-minute meeting showed a stone-faced Francis standing next to a smiling Trump. Biden’s reunion was also longer than the 52 minutes Barack Obama spent with Francis in 2014.
Biden travels to Rome and then Glasgow for back-to-back summits, first a rally for leaders of the Group of 20 leading and developing nations, then a global climate conference.
Biden and Francis have met three times already, but Friday’s meeting was the first since Biden became president.
Biden also met separately on 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, again trying to smooth relations after the US and UK decided to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines, securing a contract lucrative French.
Biden’s meeting with Pope Francis sparked some controversy ahead of time as the Vatican abruptly canceled plans on Thursday to broadcast the meeting with Biden live and denied access to independent press. Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said the revised TV plan reflected the virus protocol for all heads of state, although he did not say why more robust live TV coverage had been initially scheduled and then canceled.
Instead, the Vatican provided edited footage of the meeting to accredited media.
The Vatican spokesperson declined to comment on Biden’s remarks on communion, noting that the Vatican does not comment on the Pope’s private conversations beyond what is written in the official statement, which makes no mention of the question.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement after the Vatican meeting that did not address Biden’s remark on fellowship. Instead, the statement suggested that the president would not be singled out in any documents emanating from the bishops’ meeting next month.
The document “is intended to speak of the beauty of meeting Jesus Christ in the Eucharist and is addressed to all Catholics,” the statement said.
There was no immediate response to questions sent by The Associated Press to seven bishops engaged in the debate.
Francis stressed that he would not reject political leaders who support the right to abortion, although Catholic policy allows individual bishops to choose to prevent people from receiving Communion.
AP Religion Writer David Crary in New York contributed to this report.
This story was first published on October 29, 2021. It was updated on October 30, 2021 to correct the fact that the Swiss Guards were wearing red feather helmets, not red feathered halberds.