US President Joe Biden, left, exchanges gifts with Pope Francis as they meet at the Vatican, Friday, Oct. 29, 2021. (Vatican Media via AP)
VATICAN CITY — Declaring it’s “good to be back,” President Joe Biden opened a five-day European trip Friday with an extended visit with Pope Francis at the Vatican, where the world’s two most prominent Roman Catholics ran overtime in talks expected to cover the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, poverty and more.
A dozen Swiss Guards in their blue and gold striped uniforms and red-plumed halberds stood at attention in the San Damaso courtyard for the arrival of Biden and his wife, Jill. 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 said to another before he was ushered into the frescoed Apostolic Palace and taken upstairs to the pope’s private library.
Biden’s private meeting with the pope lasted about 75 minutes, an unusually long time for an audience with the pontiff. The pair then proceeded to a broader meeting with the first lady and top officials joining. The lengthy session put Biden behind schedule for his meetings later Friday.
The president takes pride in his Catholic faith, using it as moral guidepost to shape many of his social and economic policies. Biden wears a rosary and frequently attends Mass, yet his 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.
No live pictures or video of the meeting was expected, due to last-minute Vatican restrictions on press access.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki, in previewing the visit, said she expected a “warm and constructive dialogue” between the two leaders.
“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 centerpiece of what their discussion is when they meet.”
U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the president and pontiff would meet privately before talks with expanded delegations. Biden is visiting Rome and then Glasgow, Scotland, for back-to-back summits, first a gathering for leaders of Group of 20 leading and developing nations and then a global climate conference.
As only the second Catholic president after John F. Kennedy, Biden has made his audience with the pope a clear priority. It was his first scheduled meeting of the trip. Biden and Francis have previously met three times but Friday’s encounter was their first since Biden became president.
Following the papal meeting, Biden will meet separately Friday with Group of 20 summit hosts Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi. He will end the day by meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, part of an effort to mend relations with France after the U.S. and U.K. decided to provide nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, scotching an existing French contract.
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 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 said it would provide edited footage of the encounter to accredited media.
That decision came as U.S. bishops are preparing to meet in roughly three weeks in Baltimore for their annual fall convention. Among the agenda items is an effort by conservatives to disqualify Biden from receiving Communion. Any document emerging from the event is unlikely to single out the president by name, but he still could face some form of rebuke.
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.
On the eve of Biden’s visit, a leading U.S. conservative cardinal and Francis critic, Cardinal Raymond Burke, penned an impassioned plea for U.S. bishops to deny Catholic politicians Communion if they support abortion rights legislation.
Burke didn’t cite Biden by name, but said such Catholic politicians were causing grave scandal to the faithful since church law says someone who is “obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin” should not be admitted to Communion.
Catholic politicians who support abortion rights “have, in fact, contributed in a significant way to the consolidation of a culture of death in the United States, in which procured abortion is simply a fact of daily life,” Burke wrote.
Biden has long cast his faith as a cornerstone of his identity, writing in his 2007 memoir “Promises to Keep” that Catholicism gave him a sense “of self, of family, of community, of the wider world.” He admits to becoming angry with God after the death of his first wife and baby daughter in a 1972 traffic accident, but Biden said he never doubted God’s existence.
He told The Christian Science Monitor in 2007 that he believes his faith is universal enough to accept those with differing viewpoints.
“My views are totally consistent with Catholic social doctrine,” Biden said. “There are elements within the church who say that if you are at odds with any of the teachings of the church, you are at odds with the church. I think the church is bigger than that.”
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The Iditarod, the annual sled dog race celebrating Alaska's official state sport, is set to get underway Saturday with a new focus on safety after five dogs died and eight were injured in collisions with snowmobiles while training on shared, multi-use trails.
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