IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

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

Friday's audience at the Vatican is unlike any before between a pope and a president, more of a reunion between two men who have developed a close bond.
Then-Vice President Joe Biden shakes hands with Pope Francis on Capitol Hill on Sept. 24, 2015.
Then-Vice President Joe Biden and Pope Francis on Capitol Hill on Sept. 24, 2015.Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP file

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’d already received it — a signed copy sent by the pontiff himself.

For just the second time in U.S. history, a Roman Catholic president arrived at the Vatican for a meeting with his church's leader. But Friday’s meeting is unlike any before between a pope and a president, more of 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 independence from Rome, Biden has not shied from highlighting how his faith has shaped his career, nor from the relationship he’s developed with Francis, grounded in shared faith and philosophy and deepened through multiple face-to-face meetings.

Now, they meet 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’re always welcome here’

When Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was elected pope in 2013, then-President Barack Obama tapped the nation’s first Catholic vice president to lead the American delegation to Rome for his inauguration. Biden later recalled that in his first brief meeting with the newly installed pontiff, Francis embraced him and told him, “You’re always welcome here.”

"You could see just how meaningful 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 spanned several days, as Biden served as Francis' “designated escort” when he embarked on a three-city U.S. tour in September 2015. Biden greeted him upon 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 a fellow Catholic, House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio.

The most significant moment between the two, though, was a deeply personal one days later. Before Francis departed the United States from Philadelphia, he held a private audience with Biden and his family, just three months after Biden had buried his eldest son, Beau.

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

What struck Biden most about the conversation, according to a person close to the president, was how Francis talked about his son “in specific detail,” rather than talking generally about loss as other dignitaries had done in the preceding months. Francis also offered rosaries and other tokens to each family member as he departed, ending with a gesture of sincerity and kindness that moved the entire family, the person said.

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

That April 2016 visit illustrates a familiar Biden mantra that applies even to the pope: that all politics is personal. Francis had invited Biden to deliver an address on his cancer “moonshot” effort to accelerate research on a cure for the disease, which Biden said world leaders had both an opportunity and an obligation to match. Francis followed Biden’s address with a call for countering a “globalization of indifference” with the “globalization of empathy.”

In the years since, Biden and Pope Francis have remained in touch, including what one source close to the president called “regular correspondence.” Shortly after Francis issued a new encyclical last October, “Fratelli Tutti" (or "All Brothers"), Biden quoted from it during a major speech in the closing weeks of his campaign as he warned against what he called then-President Donald Trump’s “phony populism.”

“Pope Francis asked questions that anyone who seeks to lead this great nation should be able to answer. And my answer is this: I run to unite this nation and to heal this nation,” Biden said. “The Bible tells us that there is a time to break down and a time to build up — and a time to heal. This is that time. God and history have called us to this moment and to this mission.”

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

A progressive agenda

Biden had greeted Francis’ ascension to the papacy in 2013 as a hopeful sign for his church, in large part because he would become the first pope to come from the Jesuit order. Biden had developed an affinity for the Jesuits over the years, attending Mass when in Washington either at Jesuit-led 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 formally known, has long been distinguished for its emphasis on scholarship and service, and has the reputation of being a more progressive force in the church. And Francis has been just that. The Rev. Patrick Conroy, the first Jesuit priest to serve as chaplain of the House of Representatives, pointed to Francis’ naming 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 has not been formed by a conservative hierarchy set on fending off the reforms,” Conroy said, referring to the landmark 1960’s gathering of Catholic leaders that led to major modernization of church tradition and doctrine.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., like Biden a Catholic and a native of Scranton, Pennsylvania, said the president spent much of their recent flight there for an event talking about a recent homily he’d heard while attending Mass at Holy Trinity.

In it, the Rev. William Kelley reflected on the anniversary of Vatican II, and said that the church was now at the “threshold of another potentially groundbreaking opportunity for renewal” under Pope Francis with a greater emphasis on social justice — a notion Biden appeared to agree with as he was preparing for this historic meeting.

“Ever since he's been a kid in Scranton, he's lived his faith, and has always I think felt an obligation to lift up the vulnerable,” Casey said. “Now, with the significance of climate change there's even more of a nexus between what he's trying to do as president [and] what the pope is trying to lead on as well.”