The president’s meeting with Pope Francis was a diplomatic visit tinged with the personal.


ROME — President Biden’s first day of a four-day diplomatic tour through Italy and Scotland includes meetings with European leaders who are skeptical about the durability of American democracy and will cover thorny topics ranging from diplomatic spats to cooperating on counterterrorism measures.

But first came something he was visibly excited about.

At noon on the dot on Friday, the often-tardy Mr. Biden pulled up to the Vatican for his first meeting as president with Pope Francis, a fellow Roman Catholic and a pontiff with whom he shares a personal bond that was solidified when Francis visited Washington in 2015.

“Thank you so much,” said Mr. Biden, grinning from ear to ear, as he emerged from a limousine and shook hands with Vatican officials.

It was a diplomatic visit, but the personal resonance for the president was obvious. In his public appearances, Mr. Biden often briefly refers to an element of his upbringing in the church, pausing to relay the guidance of his Irish Catholic mother, pull a quote from a hymn or extol the importance of keeping faith in difficult moments.

Francis is the third pope Mr. Biden has met during his time in public office, beginning with John Paul II at the Vatican in 1980. As vice president, Mr. Biden met with Benedict XVI in 2011, telling him to “lighten up” on American nuns who were being investigated on suspicions that they had strayed too far from their mission.

It was Francis who asked to gather privately with Mr. Biden and his family after a tour of the United States in 2015. The meeting came about five months after the death of Mr. Biden’s oldest son, Beau, and “provided us with more comfort that even he, I think, will understand,” Mr. Biden said at the time.

The two men share significant similarities in their paths to leading two institutions that have become polarized from within. Both were passed over earlier in their lives, and both have reputations for shunning the perks of power: As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis was known for taking the bus, and as a senator Mr. Biden rode Amtrak to and from Delaware.

“They’re the regular guys,” said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, the director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. “They don’t embrace the trappings of power, not only not embrace it, they both resist that.”

Mr. Biden shares with the pope an approach to Christianity that is less focused on abortion and same-sex marriage and more on addressing poverty, climate change and racial inequality.

And while their similarities are undercut by a divide on issues like abortion and the plight of migrants, Francis has held warm meetings with other Catholics who favor abortion rights, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whom he hosted recently.

“He’s reaching out to people that don’t agree with him 100 percent, whether they’re American politicians or cardinals in the church,” Mark K. Shriver, who wrote a book on Francis, said about the pope. Mr. Shriver, a nephew of John F. Kennedy, the first U.S. Catholic president, formed a group of Catholic Biden supporters during the campaign.

“He’s not banning them or sending them to Siberia,” Mr. Shriver added, “and he’s not doing that with Biden.”



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Written by Bourbiza Mohamed

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