US President Joe Biden and Pope Francis engaged in talks on climate change, poverty and the coronavirus pandemic as the world’s two most prominent Roman Catholics met for an hour and a quarter at the Vatican on Friday.
The two leaders, who hold each other in warm regard, sat across from one another at a desk in the papal library, accompanied by a translator. The two prayed together and discussed the moral imperative for world leaders to address climate change, Biden said.
Their private meeting ran long as the two engaged in personal discussions, touched on Biden’s loss of his adult son, Beau, and laughed about ageing well. Biden and the pope then exchanged gifts and held a broader meeting including First Lady Jill Biden and top officials.
The lengthy session, which Biden called “wonderful”, put the US president more than an hour behind schedule for official meetings with government leaders. Hundreds of people lined the streets in Rome to catch a glimpse of the US president’s motorcade as it passed by, many taking photos.
It is Biden’s first trip to Europe since becoming president in January. He will participate in a summit of the leaders of the Group of 20 (G20) – the world’s biggest economies – in Rome on October 31 and the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, on November 1-2.
On Friday afternoon, Biden met Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi and President Sergio Mattarella, as well as French President Emmanuel Macron.
The US president is expected to meet on the sidelines of the G20 with Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters on Thursday. The two are likely to talk about NATO member Turkey’s exclusion from the US’s F-35 fighter jet programme.
Biden’s meeting with the pope comes as he faces criticism in the United States from Catholic bishops over the issue of abortion rights. A major political battle is brewing in the US as the Supreme Court prepares to rule whether states can ban abortion procedures.
US bishops have been debating whether Biden should be allowed to continue receiving Holy Communion, a Christian rite of worship involving the taking of bread and wine in remembrance of Christ.
A devout Roman Catholic, Biden goes to weekly masses regularly and keeps a picture of the pope behind his desk in the Oval Office. He has said he is personally opposed to abortion but as an elected leader cannot impose his views.
Biden, 78, said Pope Francis, 84, advised he should keep taking Holy Communion.
Biden said the two did not discuss the abortion issue directly but that “we just talked about the fact that he was happy that I was a good Catholic and … keep receiving communion”.
Biden is only the second Catholic to be elected US president. The first was President John F Kennedy in 1960.
“In his audience with Pope Francis today, President Biden thanked His Holiness for his advocacy for the world’s poor and those suffering from hunger, conflict, and persecution,” the White House said in a statement.
“He lauded Pope Francis’ leadership in fighting the climate crisis, as well as his advocacy to ensure the pandemic ends for everyone through vaccine sharing and an equitable global economic recovery.”
A dozen Swiss Guards in their blue and gold striped uniforms and red-plumed halberds stood at attention in the San Damaso courtyard as Biden and the US first lady arrived.
Biden slipped what is known as a challenge coin into the pope’s palm during a handshake, and hailed Francis as “the most significant warrior for peace I’ve ever met”.
The personalised coin depicts Biden’s home state of Delaware and a reference to his late son Beau’s military unit, the Delaware National Guard’s 261st Signal Brigade.
“The tradition is, and I’m only kidding about this, but next time I see you, if you don’t have it, you have to buy the drinks,” Biden said, referring to the coin. He added: “I’m the only Irishman you’ve ever met who’s never had a drink.”
Francis laughed and responded: “The Irish brought whisky.”