Over the years, presidents and popes: Gifts, gaffes and grief

On Friday, President Joe Biden won't touch the ring when he meets Pope Francis.

Over the years, presidents and popes: Gifts, gaffes and grief

Biden, who met with Francis three more times and with two other popes before, said that he does not respect the traditional sign of respect as his mother advised him not to -- that there is no one "better" than him. Biden and Francis will meet to discuss climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic as equals.

Biden is only the second Catholic president of the United States. He attends Mass every weekend.

Biden, a second-term senator met with Pope John Paul II as a 1980 meeting. The two had a 45 minute conversation. He met Pope Benedict XVI as vice president in 2011. In 2011, he told the pope that he would be more gentle with American nuns who were being criticized by the church for their activism on poverty issues.

Biden is a good friend of the pontiff. He met Francis in 2013 when he was inaugurated as pope. Biden also met the pontiff during his 2015 visit. This included a private meeting in which Biden stated that the pope had prayed for Biden's family while they were mourning the recent loss of Beau. They met again in 2016, when Biden spoke on cancer care at a Vatican conference on regenerative medicines.

A photo of a meeting with the pope is kept by the president behind his desk at the Oval Office. The upcoming meeting is part of a long tradition that has seen president-and pope encounters.

Here are some memorable moments from past meetings:

President John F. Kennedy met Pope Paul VI at Vatican in 1963. This was a historic moment: Only days after his coronation, Kennedy was seeing the Roman Catholic pontiff. Kennedy, who was subject to anti-Catholic bias in his presidential campaign, decided to shake hands with Pope Paul VI rather than kissing his rings, which is the customary practice for Catholics.

Protocol problems arose from Pope Paul VI's October 1965 visit to New York. President Lyndon Johnson wanted him to visit, but the pontiff was the chief of a country not officially recognized by America. Johnson flew to New York to meet Arthur Goldberg, his friend and U.S. ambassador, for dinner. The pontiff was then welcomed into Johnson's suite at Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on the following day.

Johnson was known for his penchant to give unusual papal gifts. Paul received a silver-framed and autographed photo of Johnson at their 1965 meeting. Johnson presented the pontiff with a bust of himself a foot high at their second meeting at Vatican two years later.

Jimmy Carter was the first president in the White House to host a pope. Pope John Paul II hosted 10,000 guests at the White House during his stay. They were split into separate arrival and departure ceremonies on both the North and South Lawns.

On his 1982 first trip to the Vatican, President Ronald Reagan struggled to keep his eyes open. Reagan's head was bobbed, and his eyes closed repeatedly for seconds while John Paul spoke solemnly about the crises in Lebanon and Falkland Islands. Reagan was on a 10-day European tour with a full schedule. It did not change the already widespread belief that Reagan, a 71-year old president, was not physically fit for the job.

Reagan caused controversy in 1984 over the separation between church and state by establishing diplomatic relations between the United States and the Vatican. This was a long-standing desire of the Holy See. Reagan and John Paul were soon reunited at Fairbanks airport, Alaska, during refuelling stops. Their paths crossed as one completed and the other began travels to Asia. There was a lot of excitement at the Alaska stop, and also many T-shirts that read "The Pope Meets the Dope".

The last of his four meetings with Pope John Paul, President Bill Clinton flew from Washington to St. Louis to meet the pontiff and begin a U.S. Tour. The Senate was still in the throes in its impeachment trial of Clinton and John Paul stated that "America faces an hour of trial." However, it was widely assumed that the pontiff was referring to his long-running dispute with Clinton regarding the president's support of abortion rights.

At George W. Bush’s last meeting with John Paul in June 2004, at the Vatican, he presented the pope the Medal of Freedom. This is the highest civilian honor of the country. The pontiff replied by reading a statement about his "grave worry" about the events in Iraq, where U.S.-led warfare had been ongoing for less than a year.

Bush was the first sitting president of the United States to attend a funeral for the Pope after John Paul died in 2005.

Many Vatican watchers and Italians noted Bush's casual, overtly casual behavior at his first meeting with Pope Benedict XVI's successor John Paul. Instead of using the usual "your holiness" greeting, Bush addressed the pope "sir." He leaned back in his chair with one foot thrown informally over the other. This was in contrast to the more ramrod-straight physical position that is common in the pontiff’s presence. Rome's ANSA agency flashed the headline "Gaffe Presidente".

For Benedict's first U.S. trip as pope, there were many firsts for the president: Bush went to Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, to meet the pontiff's plane; he also brought the largest crowd to the South Lawn to witness Benedict's arrival ceremony and hosted a dinner in his honor.

Former President Barack Obama met twice with Pope Francis, once at Vatican in 2014, and again during his 2015 visit to the U.S. where he met Francis on the tarmac of Andrews and was host in the Oval Office. Obama spoke out in praise of Pope Francis, describing him as a "living example of Jesus’ teachings" and Francis applauded Obama's commitment to climate change.

Former President Donald Trump had a notoriously difficult relationship with Pope Francis. During the 2016 campaign, the two men fought. Francis took a dig at Trump by saying that those who only think of building bridges instead of walls are "not Christian." Trump called these comments "disgraceful" while suggesting that the Mexican government was using Francis to its advantage. Photos of the meeting at the Vatican in 2017 showed a smiling Trump standing beside a grimy Francis. Later, the president stated that their meeting was "fantastic".

You need to login to comment.

Please register or login.