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For Biden, a meeting with Pope Francis is both personal and political

ROME – As Joe Biden prepared to assume the presidency, a close friend offered to send him Pope Francis’ new book for inspiration. The president-elect politely declined, saying he had already received it – a signed copy sent by the pontiff himself.

For only the second time in US history, a Roman Catholic president has arrived at the Vatican for a meeting with the head of his church. But Friday’s meeting is unlike any other between a pope and a president, rather it is a reunion between two men who, over the past decade, have developed a close personal and even political bond.

Where John F. Kennedy was careful to establish his independence from Rome, Biden did not hesitate to point out how his faith shaped his career, nor the relationship he developed with Francis, based on a faith and a philosophy shared and deepened through multiple face-to-face meetings. face meetings.

Now they are meeting for the first time as peers and fellow heads of state, with an agenda that is expected to include climate, poverty and the global response to Covid-19.

“You are always welcome here”

When Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was elected Pope in 2013, then-President Barack Obama called on the country’s first Catholic Vice President to lead the US delegation to Rome for his investiture. Biden later recalled that during his first brief meeting with the newly installed pontiff, Francis had kissed him and told him, “You are always welcome here.”

“You could see how important it was to the vice president,” said Jack DeGoia, president of Georgetown University, who accompanied Biden as a member of the delegation.

Their next visit lasted for several days, with Biden serving as Francis’ “designated escort” when he embarked on a three-city tour of the United States in September 2015. Biden greeted him upon his arrival at Joint Base Andrews, participated in his visit to the White House, and presided over the first papal address to a joint session of Congress, alongside another Catholic, Speaker of the House, John A. Boehner, R-Ohio.

The most important moment between the two, however, was deeply personal a day later. Before Francis left Philadelphia for the United States, he held a private audience with Biden and his family, just three months after Biden buried his eldest son, Beau.

One by one, in a nondescript small room at the airport, Biden introduced Francis to his family, including his son’s widow and children, before the group sat down for a long conversation.

What struck Biden most about the conversation, according to a person close to the President, was the way Francis spoke of his son “in detail”, rather than speaking generally of the loss like other dignitaries. had done so in the previous months. Francis also offered rosaries and other tokens to each family member when they left, ending with a gesture of sincerity and kindness that moved the whole family, the person said.

“I wish every grieving parent, brother or sister, mother or father had the benefit of his words, his prayers, his presence,” Biden recalled a year later, when he met Francis again afterwards. speaking at a Vatican conference.

This April 2016 visit illustrates a familiar Biden mantra that applies even to the Pope: that all politics are personal. Francis had invited Biden to give a speech on his cancer “moonshot” effort to accelerate research into a cure for the disease, which Biden said world leaders had both the opportunity and the obligation to do. ‘match. Francis followed Biden’s speech with a call to counter a “globalization of indifference” with the “globalization of empathy.”

In the years that followed, Biden and Pope Francis kept in touch, including what a source close to the president called “regular correspondence.” Shortly after Francis published a new encyclical last October, “Fratelli Tutti” (or “All the Brothers”), Biden quoted him in a major speech in the final weeks of his campaign as he warned of what he called then-President Donald Trump “bogus populism.”

“Pope Francis has asked questions that anyone seeking to lead this great nation should be able to answer. And my answer is, I’m running to unite this nation and to heal this nation, ”Biden said. “The Bible tells us that there is a time to fall apart and a time to build up – and a time to heal. This is the moment. God and history called us to this time and to this mission.

Weeks later, Francis was one of the first world leaders Biden spoke to by phone as president-elect.

A progressive agenda

Biden had hailed Francis’ ascension to the papacy in 2013 as a sign of hope for his church, in large part because he would become the first pope to come out of the Jesuit order. Biden had developed an affinity for the Jesuits over the years, attending mass in Washington, either at Jesuit-run Holy Trinity Church or Georgetown University. Biden’s son Hunter also spent time as a member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.

The Society of Jesus, as the order is officially known, has long distinguished itself for its emphasis on scholarship and service, and has a reputation as a more progressive force in the church. And Francis was exactly that. Reverend Patrick Conroy, the first Jesuit priest to serve as chaplain of the House of Representatives, pointed out that Francis had appointed lay men and women to key positions in the church and his more welcoming approach to divorced Catholics and the LGBTQ + community.

“Sixty years after Vatican II, we finally have a pope whose life was not shaped by a conservative hierarchy determined to push back reform,” said Conroy, referring to the historic gathering of Catholic leaders of the 1960s that led to a major modernization of the ecclesial tradition. and doctrine.

Senator Bob Casey, D-Pa., Like Biden, a Catholic from Scranton, Pa., Said the president spent much of his recent flight there for an event speaking of a recent homily he he had heard while attending mass at Holy Trinity. .

In it, Reverend William Kelley reflected on the anniversary of Vatican II and said the church was now on the “threshold of another potentially revolutionary opportunity for renewal” under Pope Francis with an increased emphasis on justice social – a notion Biden appeared to agree with as he prepared for this historic encounter.

“Since he was a kid in Scranton he lived his faith and always felt, I think, an obligation to raise the vulnerable,” said Casey. “Now, with the importance of climate change, there’s even more connection between what he’s trying to do as president [and] what the Pope is also trying to lead. “

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