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Biden to Meet With Pope Francis Ahead of G20 Summit
With his domestic agenda in limbo and tensions with China and Russia smoldering in the backdrop, President Biden kicked off a whirlwind international tour on Friday in Rome, where he is meeting with Pope Francis to discuss global challenges like the pandemic and climate change.
Mr. Biden, who is usually tardy to meetings, pulled up to the Vatican at noon on the dot. A minute after he and Jill Biden, the first lady, arrived in the presidential limousine, the president shook hands with Vatican officials before being taken inside to meet with Francis.
The Vatican visit is just the prelude to a five-day diplomatic marathon that will be crucial not just for Mr. Biden, but also for the world. This weekend, at the Group of 20 summit of the world’s largest economies, leaders will gather amid a pandemic in which inequalities are increasingly raw and as supply chain woes and rising energy prices threaten economies worldwide.
After that, he and many of the same leaders head to Scotland for COP26, a worldwide summit on climate change that is billed by many as a make-or-break moment to save a warming planet from disaster.
On Friday, Mr. Biden’s enormous motorcade, with dozens of cars and S.U.V.s with military personnel, rolled down the broad Via della Conciliazione. It entered the Vatican courtyard, and Mr. Biden removed his black face mask and stepped out of the car. He came out smiling and shook the hand of a bishop, Leonardo Sapienza, who would accompany him inside.
The president — accompanied by his wife, Jill Biden, dressed in black as per tradition —worked his way down a small line of Gentlemen of the Pope, aristocrats in tuxedos and white bow ties who are given the honor of serving the pope.
“It’s good to be back,” Mr. Biden told them, greeting one of the last of them by saying, “I’m Jill’s husband.” He then walked up steps flanked by Swiss guards and entered the palace.
For Mr. Biden, the events come against the backdrop of high-stakes negotiations over his domestic agenda. But participants to the summits from across the globe are all facing enormous challenges, many linked to the pandemic and the health and economic devastation it has wrought.
The agenda would be daunting even in normal times, but this is first G20 meeting in person since the virus emerged. Many of those who are coming hope to deliver concrete changes on issues like international tax shelters and getting coronavirus vaccines to the developing world, even as they struggle to make progress on existential issues like lowering carbon emissions and addressing energy shortages.
Mr. Biden will also meet on Friday with President Emanuel Macron of France, who is livid with the administration after the United States cut a secret deal to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines — a deal that left France, which thought it had a multibillion-dollar agreement in the bag, empty-handed.
Between those two meetings, Mr. Biden will head to the Chigi Palace, the home of Italy’s prime minister, Mario Draghi. It is not just a polite drop-by. With Angela Merkel of Germany leaving the scene and Mr. Macron politically embattled, Mr. Draghi has emerged as a leader of Europe and a potentially key interlocutor for an American president looking to keep alliances strong on the continent.
Two of the world’s most consequential leaders — President Xi Jinping of China and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia — are not expected at either the G20 or the climate summit in person, however.
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 — it’s good to be back,” said Mr. Biden, grinning from ear to ear, as he emerged from a limousine and shook hands with Vatican officials. “Thank you so much.”
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 under fire for activism on poverty.
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.”
VATICAN CITY — Joseph R. Biden Jr. is the third American president Francis has met since becoming pope in 2013. Each meeting has marked a distinct phase not only of his papacy, but also of the political upheaval in the United States and in its Roman Catholic church.
President Barack Obama shared Francis’ global magnetism, celebrity wattage and a focus on immigrants, climate change and the poor. President Donald J. Trump, whose Christianity Francis once questioned for his anti-immigrant policies, ushered in a populist era that helped sideline Francis.
Mr. Biden, a devout Catholic, arrived at a moment when the political polarization in America has become woven into its Catholic church. And the president and pope have become common targets of powerful conservative American bishops seeking to undercut them.
Vatican officials and experts said they doubted that the antagonism of American bishops would come up in the private audience between Francis and Mr. Biden, and that they would instead talk about issues like addressing climate change, caring for the poor and ending the pandemic.
Francis is likely to press the president to ramp up coronavirus vaccine distribution to the developing world, and he rarely misses the chance to speak out against arms dealing and the consequences of war.
Yet factions left and right will be studying the meeting for any clue that the pope is providing political cover to the first Catholic American president since John F. Kennedy against the conservative culture warriors in their church.
An announcement by the Vatican on Thursday evening that it had canceled the planned live broadcast of the beginning of the meeting between President Biden and Pope Francis — limiting it just to the arrival of Mr. Biden’s motorcade — quickly became grist for partisan analysis.
“The Biden Administration was hoping to have extensive media coverage of the President and the Pope during their meeting tomorrow,” the deeply conservative Catholic League wrote on Twitter. “But now the Vatican has thrown a monkey wrench into this opportunistic gambit.”
Matteo Bruni, the Vatican spokesman, described the limited access as “normal procedure” during the pandemic, and the Vatican said it would supply news organizations with edited video clips after the meeting. But as of Friday morning, more access was still under discussion, and the White House said it was pushing for that.
The actual substance of audiences with the pope, especially with heads of state, are always restricted, but in the past reporters and sometimes independent news cameras were able to be present in the Apostolic Palace to witness the greetings and the exchange of gifts.
Limited as that access was, it gave a sense of the tone of a meeting, and sometimes reporters picked up snippets of newsworthy conversation.
On Friday, the global press corps was also fighting for access. Reporters and photographers are typically allowed a few minutes to view visiting heads of state exchange greetings and gifts with the pope. Such visits date back to the era of Woodrow Wilson, who in 1919 became the first U.S. president to visit Vatican City.
The Vatican’s history of obfuscation, opaqueness and Pravda-like messaging is well established. In 2005, the day after Pope John Paul II underwent a tracheotomy to relieve respiratory problems, the Vatican’s then spokesman told reporters that he had enjoyed a breakfast of 10 cookies. He died soon after.
But a penchant for privacy has created a communications challenge for the institution, especially in a social-media age in which immediate information and incessant updates are expected.
Pope Francis, for instance, believes that granular details of his health are not necessarily anyone else’s business.
The first meeting between an incumbent U.S. president and a sitting pope took place in 1919 during President Woodrow Wilson’s participation in the Paris Peace Conference after the end of World War I. That was also the first visit by a U.S. president to Europe.
Since then, the leaders of church and state have met on both sides of the Atlantic.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1959Paul Schutzer/Associated Press
John F. Kennedy, 1963Bettmann/Getty Images
Lyndon B. Johnson, 1967Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Richard Nixon, 1969Rolls Press/Popperfoto via Getty Images
Ronald Reagan, 1982Bettmann/Getty Images
George H.W. Bush, 1991Rick Wilking/Reuters
Bill Clinton, 1994Livio ANTICOLI/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
George W. Bush, 2002Pool photo by Doug Mills
George W. Bush, 2004Vincenzo Pinto/AFP via Getty Images
George W. Bush, 2007Franco Origlia/ Getty Images
Barack Obama, 2014Doug Mills/The New York Times
Donald J. Trump, 2017Osservatore Romano/Reuters
Pope Francis is scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Rome, an encounter that comes against a backdrop of rising attacks against Indian Christians.
The country’s Christian leaders hope that Mr. Modi, who will meet the pontiff on Saturday for the first time, will use the opportunity to invite the pope to India, which is home to one of Asia’s oldest and largest Christian populations.
They say there is added urgency because Christians are increasingly being targeted by supporters of Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalist political party. In recent months, mobs of Hindu extremists have attacked churches and beaten up worshipers.
“The meeting of these two leaders must help in bringing peace and harmony,” said Michael Williams, the president of the United Christian Forum, a nonprofit organization in New Delhi.
He added: “I am very positive about the meeting.”
The pope is also set to meet with President Biden and other leaders at the summit.
India last hosted a papal visit in 1999, when Pope John Paul II arrived amid especially tight security and called for recognition of Catholics’ right to evangelize.
Catholic leaders say that they have urged Mr. Modi several times to invite Francis, but that powerful voices within the prime minister’s political alliance of Hindu nationalist groups have opposed it. Mr. Modi is often caught in this predicament: trying to present himself as a leader for all Indians and a player on the world stage, while not alienating his base, many of whom entertain extremist religious views.
Christians in India, numbering more than 30 million, make up about 2 percent of the country’s population. And many Christians believe that Thomas the Apostle landed on the southwestern Indian coast after Jesus was crucified.
As for the agenda of Mr. Modi’s papal meeting, the Indian government has been vague.
“What the discussions will be with the pope, I will not be able to tell right now,” Harsh Shringla, India’s foreign secretary, said at a news conference this week. “It is very evident that this is a very important meeting.”
“When the prime minister is going to Rome, to the Vatican, it is important that he meet the pope,” Mr. Shringla added. “And whether it will be a one-on-one or a delegation-level talks, that needs to be decided. But normally in such meetings, some delegation members are present from both sides.”