The reason for his 2016 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 his host, Pope 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.”
Biden, alongside first lady Jill Biden, returned to the Vatican on Friday 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.
The President’s vehicle pulled to a stop in an interior courtyard of the Vatican at noon local time, and both stepped out from their limo, which was bearing the flag of the Holy See.
They were greeted by Monsignor Leonardo Sapienza, head of Papal Household, and other Vatican officials.
As he went down a receiving line shaking hands, Biden repeatedly said it was “good to be back.” At one point, he introduced himself by saying, “I’m Jill’s husband.”
Biden took part in an initial one-on-one meeting with Francis, which lasted 90 minutes, before participating in an expanded bilateral meeting with several members of the Biden administration as well as Francis and Vatican officials. The President and American officials are next participating in a meeting with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State.
Despite footage of the outdoor arrival, the visit has been clouded by severe restrictions on press coverage; independent journalists will not be allowed to see the two men meeting at all, and no live pictures of the Pope greeting Biden will be transmitted.
The two were expected to touch on their personal relationship as Catholics and other key world issues, national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Tuesday. And their issues-related discussion was expected to address climate, migration and income inequality — major areas of consensus among both men.
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. A live broadcast of Biden’s meeting with the Pope has been cancelled by the Vatican over the objections of journalists. Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said the Vatican will distribute video of some parts of the arrival and greeting with the Pope following the meeting.
While areas of common ground are expected to be discussed, it’s not clear whether the Vatican will put Biden in the hot seat.
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. But when White House press secretary Jen Psaki was pressed over whether the two men would discuss abortion and the President’s pro-choice stance, Psaki said on Wednesday that they’re focused on areas of consensus.
“There’s a great deal of agreement and overlap with the President and Pope Francis on a range of issues — poverty, combating the climate crisis, ending the Covid-19 pandemic,” Psaki said. “These are all hugely important, impactful issues that will be the centrepiece of their discussion when they meet.”
She also said Friday’s meeting “absolutely has personal significance” to Biden and that she suspected it would be “a warm meeting.”
The meeting 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.
Typically, world leaders offer a gift to the pope at the Vatican during their visits and — given Francis’ humble approach to the papacy — the gift is not likely to be extravagant. It’s also expected that Biden will not kiss Francis’ ring. During past meetings with popes, Biden has refused to do so, saying his mother told him not to kiss the ring and that no one is “better” than him.
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.
Navigating politics and faith
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.
Reese said he doesn’t expect the communion issue to come up during the Vatican meeting.
“With the limited time they have, they’re going to be dealing with real big foreign policy issues — world issues,” he said.
“You’re going to have a picture — Pope Francis and Joe Biden — smiling and laughing together. And it’s gonna be pretty hard for the bishops to beat up on Joe Biden, after they’ve got this smiling photo of the two of them,” Reese added.