When President Barack Obama meets Thursday at the Vatican with Pope Francis, it will be the 28th time that a sitting American president has met with the man who leads the Catholic Church and its estimated 1.2 billion faithful worldwide.
For nearly 140 years after America won its independence, presidents didn’t look at a meeting with the pope as a hot ticket. The dominance of Protestants in the new nation, persistent questions about who really led the Catholic Church and from where, to say nothing of the difficulties of travel, all made such summits impossible.
That changed in 1919, when Woodrow Wilson became the first U.S. president to be granted a papal audience. John F. Kennedy, America’s only Catholic president, made his Vatican pilgrimage just a few months before his assassination in 1963. Jimmy Carter played host in 1979 to the first White House visit by a reigning pope. George W. Bush holds the record for papal greeting; he met with two popes during his eight years in office, holding a total of six meetings.
Popes frequently criticize U.S. policy — legal abortion, the death penalty and the war in Iraq have all been targets. And presidents’ papal audiences are famously steeped in ceremony, with the Vatican’s Swiss Guard in full regalia accompanying the president and women from the U.S. delegation wearing veils.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t lighter moments.
Jim Nicholson, who served as Bush’s ambassador to the Vatican from 2001 to 2005, recalled how Pope John Paul II lightened the mood when he welcomed Bush for their third and final meeting in June 2004.
Bush, who was taking a beating in the media over the Iraq War, which the pope had opposed, walked into their meeting room escorted by an American cardinal, Edmund Szoka.
The pope slumped in his chair, weighed down physically by the ravages of Parkinson's disease.
“How are you feeling this morning, Holy Father?” Szoka asked. The pope said nothing. The cardinal repeated the question. John Paul struggled to raise his head, and it looked like he was trying to smile. He looked at Szoka, then at Bush, then back.
“I don’t know yet,” the pope said slowly. “I haven’t had a chance to read the American press.”
“They had had their deep division over Iraq,” Nicholson said in an interview with Yahoo News. But “here was the pope, expressing a kind of solidarity with President Bush, who was getting whacked in the press.”
Thursday’s meeting is Obama’s first face-to-face with Pope Francis, an Argentine-born former nightclub bouncer whose sky-high popularity around the world recalls the president’s own high standing in 2008.
The commander in chief of the world’s only superpower has often expressed admiration for the leader of one of the globe’s “spiritual superpowers.” And Obama is hardly alone: Republican House Speaker John Boehner has extended an open-ended invitation for Francis to become the first pope to ever address a joint session of Congress.
By the time Woodrow Wilson held the first recorded president-pope powwow in January 1919, the two had exchanged a series of written notes.
The two had chiefly corresponded about the negotiations to end World War I.
“Humanity has its eyes fixed on the great President of the greatest democracy in the world,” the pope wrote Wilson on Nov. 8, 1918.
When Wilson and Pope Benedict XV came face to face on Jan. 4, 1919, the president’s doctor chronicled the meeting in his diary. “The entrance of His Holiness was announced by the tinkling of a small bell,” Cary T. Grayson wrote. “He was small of stature, not more than five feet four inches, and apparently weighed about one hundred and thirty pounds.”
It took 40 more years for the next audience — the Great Depression, World War II and virulent anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States threw up obstacles between American presidents and popes.
In 1928, for example, New York Gov. Al Smith — Herbert Hoover’s Democratic rival — had to contend with editorial cartoons showing him kneeling to the pope, as well as whisper campaigns that he would annul Protestant marriages and forbid Americans from owning Bibles.
Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Dec. 6, 1959, meeting set the pattern presidents have followed ever since: Every chief executive has met at least once with the pope.
Reporters entered the room to find the president, the pope and some of their closest aides “roaring with laughter,” according to Gen. Vernon Walters, a U.S. military adviser.
Why? The Italian-born pope had observed that he spoke French, Bulgarian and Turkish but struggled with his English lessons. Eisenhower asked how the effort was going. The pope replied: “The more I study English, the more I realize that papal infallibility does not cover pronunciation.”
Kennedy faced some of the same ugliness that helped to doom Smith’s campaign. Norman Vincent Peale, perhaps the country’s most influential Protestant pastor, suggested that Kennedy’s election would erode the boundary between church and state. Kennedy’s formal rebuttal is the stuff of political campaign legend.
Kennedy sent a delegation to Pope Paul VI’s installation ceremony in June 1963 and met with him at the Vatican on July 2, 1963.
An undated note from the pope to the president is addressed “To Our Beloved Son, John F. Kennedy, President of the United States of America.” That’s the State Department’s translation, anyway: The original note was in Latin.
The pope gave the visiting president several gifts, including a signed photograph, a replica of Michelangelo’s Pieta and a copy of his remarks welcoming Kennedy back to the Vatican 30 years after accompanying his parents to the coronation of Pope Pius XII.
“Unfortunately, the Pope declined to sign this document,” a U.S. Embassy staffer wrote to a White House aide. “This may diminish its souvenir value somewhat.”
In 1979, Carter became the first president to welcome a pope to the White House. But it was Ronald Reagan who found in the Vatican one of his most important Cold War allies.
John Paul II, the first Polish pope, did not hesitate to challenge Moscow and preach the cause of religious freedom, a direct blow at communism.
Bush credited John Paul II with inspiring his policy restricting government funding for embryonic stem cell research. While the pope famously came out strongly against the invasion of Iraq, Nicholson notes that John Paul II lent moral authority to the war in Afghanistan.
Nicholson’s first meeting fell on Sept. 13, 2001, with America — and the world — reeling from the terrorist attacks two days earlier.
“We met in his library. He was still ambulatory and came to the door to welcome me,” the ambassador told Yahoo News. “It was all pretty regal for a farm boy.” The two men set aside their prepared remarks.
“We sat down, said a prayer for the victims of 9/11. He was grieving as heavily as I was,” Nicholson said. “He said, ‘We have to stop these people who kill in the name of God.’”
“It was a real affirmative statement for us that really helped us put the coalition together in Europe to go into Afghanistan because he had lent his moral authority,” he said.
Obama hopes to capture a bit of that as well. Francis might raise the issue of the Affordable Care Act’s mandate to cover contraception. The pope might also express concerns about the plight of Christians across the Middle East. But the president has made clear that Francis’s appeal to battle poverty and inequality resonates with him.
“I am especially looking forward to returning to the Vatican next month to meet His Holiness, Pope Francis, whose message about caring for the ‘least of these’ is one that I hope all of us heed,” the president said at the National Prayer Breakfast one month ago. “Like Matthew, he has answered the call of Jesus, who said ‘follow me,’ and he inspires us with his words and deeds, his humility, his mercy and his missionary impulse to serve the cause of social justice.”