President and the Pope spent more than an hour in a private audience at the Vatican as a group of youth activists continued a hunger strike outside the White House
President Joe Biden on Friday met privately with Pope Francis for roughly 90 minutes during the second Catholic president’s first trip to the Vatican since assuming office this past January.
Neither the White House nor the Vatican provided details of what exactly was discussed during the closed-door meeting between the world’s two most prominent Roman Catholic leaders, but a White House official told reporters that the “engagement” between the two men was “very warm” when Mr Biden’s delegation arrived for an expanded bilateral meeting with Francis and 10 unnamed “Papal Gentlemen”.
In a statement, the White House said Mr Biden “thanked His Holiness for his advocacy for the world’s poor and those suffering from hunger, conflict, and persecution” and “lauded Pope Francis’ leadership in fighting the climate crisis, as well as his advocacy to ensure the pandemic ends for everyone through vaccine sharing and an equitable global economic recovery”.
The president, who is visiting Rome for this year’s Group of 20 leaders’ summit before flying to Glasgow for the Cop26 climate conference, arrived at Vatican City by way of a motorcade through the center of the Italian capital during which onlookers lined the streets to cheer, wave, and take photos as the president’s car passed by.
As Mr Biden and First Lady Jill Biden – both dressed in dark blue suits with Mrs Biden’s featuring a skirt and lace mantilla – alighted from the armoured limousine known as “the beast”, the first couple were greeted by Monsignor Leonardo Sapienza, the head of Papal Household.
Friday’s meeting is not the first between the two men. When Francis, then known as Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, was inaugurated as the 260th Bishop of Rome in 2013, Mr Biden – then Vice President of the United States – led the official US delegation. Two years later, then-Vice President Biden was Francis’ escort when the pontiff embarked on a tour of the US, and alongside then-House Speaker John Boehner, who presided over the House chamber when Francis addressed joint session of congress.
The pope and then-vice president also met again several days later, when Francis held a private audience with Mr Biden and his family in Philadelphia.
Though Mr Biden considers himself a devout Catholic and is a regular churchgoer who frequently attends mass near his Wilmington, Delaware home, his support for LGBT+ and women’s reproductive rights have put him at odds with leaders of the church in some parts the United States, many of whom have pledged to deny him communion if given the opportunity.
Both he and Francis have drawn condemnation from more conservative catholics for their attention to issues such as climate change and income inequality rather than abortion and matters of sexual morality.
Asked whether abortion came up in his talks with Francis, Mr Biden said they had not.
“We just talked about the fact he was happy that I was a good Catholic and I should keep receiving communion,” he said later on Friday during a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi.
But even as Mr Biden prepares to attend the UN climate conference next week, a group of activists are nine days into a hunger strike meant to draw attention to what they say are his administration’s insufficient actions to stop climate change.
The hunger strikers, who earlier this week met with White House Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy and Special Climate Envoy John Kerry, are demanding that Mr Biden include strong climate provisions in his Build Back Better agenda.
“We will continue to sit starving outside the White House everyday until you use your power as elected president of the United States to deliver your mandate for bold, and transformative climate action with justice and for jobs,” the activists wrote in a Tuesday letter to White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain.
One of the activists, 26-year-old Kidus Girma, told CNN that he sought medical attention last week for nausea, dizziness and blurred vision. He and the other hunger strikers are now using wheelchairs to remain steady.
“I’m seven days into the hunger strike and my body hurts, my stomach honestly feels vacuous, my body feels vacuous, and I have a headache that won’t go away,” Mr Girma said. “We’re at the point where our muscles are being eaten up by our bodies.”