ROME—On the eve of the first in-person G20 since the pandemic changed the world, the second American Catholic president met the first Argentine pope for a 90-minute closed-door meeting. Biden arrived precisely at noon in a motorcade with nearly 80 gas-guzzling cars and several helicopters overhead as the church bells of Rome tolled throughout the city.
As he and his wife Jill shook hands of those waiting for him in a long receiving line leading to the waiting pontiff, he said, “It’s good to be back.” Then he introduced himself to some waiting in line as “Jill’s husband.”
The two most powerful Catholics in the world then spent nearly 90 minutes discussing a range of issues, but not abortion—a topic U.S. bishops have criticized the pro-choice president about and one that bolsters their criticism of this pontiff. The Vatican gave a sparse readout of the events, but Biden told reporters in his press pool that Francis told him he was pleased he was “a good Catholic” and that he by all means should continue to receive Communion. There has been no affirmation of the claim from the Holy See.
The Vatican had promised live coverage of President Joe Biden and Pope Francis meeting and greeting, but canceled it late Thursday because of an unspecified “protocol” that many feel was so no one can use potentially friendly footage of the pro-choice president and the leader of the anti-abortion Catholic church for political gain. Francis’ pre-pandemic meeting with President Donald Trump, which lasted just 30 minutes, was televised live with the notably disgruntled pontiff’s body language speaking volumes about his feelings about the anti-immigration president.
Press offices for Biden and Francis gave separate accounts of their discussion. The American side was vivid in detail, outlining jokes and banter and confirming that the president said “God love ya” to the pope—who presumably already knows that—as they strolled the hallowed halls of the papal palace. The Vatican side confirmed a smattering of issues in no detail.
The two exchanged gifts, with Biden giving the pontiff a coin with the insignia of the 261st Signal Brigade of the Delaware National Guard, for which his late son Beau served as a captain. Biden then joked with the pontiff that if he didn’t still have the coin the next time they met, the pope would have to buy him a drink, telling the pope he was the only Irishman he had likely met who had never had a drink. The pope responded, “Irish people love whiskey,” according to the U.S. press pool handout.
Biden also told press traveling with him that the two discussed “a lot of personal things” and described the 84-year-old pontiff as “wonderful” during a meeting with Italy’s president.
The two heads of state do agree on issues like climate change and vaccines, and it is likely that Francis leaned on the U.S. president about migration policy—a key issue for the pontiff.
The two met on five occasions while Biden was vice president, but this is the first as president so optics are important. The last time they met was 2015, during which they spoke of the then-recent death of Biden’s son. At the time, Biden said Francis offered “more comfort than even he... will ever understand.”
This time, the meeting is strictly under wraps, with the Vatican issuing its own edited version of the greeting in the Vatican’s Throne Room and private discussion in the papal library.
Biden is the only devout Catholic president since John F. Kennedy, but conservatives in the U.S. Catholic Church have sought to condemn him for his pro-choice stance with many calling on him to be denied Communion. Francis, as the leader of the Catholic Church, is a staunch opponent of abortion, which he has called “murder” in line with Catholic teaching, but he has also come down hard on American conservative bishops who he says should not enter into politics.
It is unclear if or where Biden will attend Mass on Sunday morning, but it won’t likely be in the Vatican, sources say. And it definitely will not be with the pope, who generally says Mass at his private residence Santa Marta.
Biden’s presence at the G20—which is being held in Rome’s EUR district, built by fascist dictator Benito Mussolini for the World Fair that never was—has been overshadowed not by who else is here but who isn’t, namely Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil is expected to attend along with Canadian premier Justin Trudeau, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.