Since the mid-1800s, 20 former, sitting and future U.S. presidents have met with eight different popes on 40 occasions.
While almost all of these gatherings were pleasant, some encounters were less than harmonious.
The overwhelming majority of these conclaves have transpired in the last 50 years in the wake of the diminishing anti-Catholic sentiment of past American generations.
An article in “America-The Jesuit Review” by James Keane notes that the Vatican “only removed the United States from the category of ‘mission territory’ in 1908, and it wasn’t until 1984 that the U.S. formally recognized and exchanged ambassadors with the Holy See.”
In the 19th century, four former presidents and one young future Oval Office occupant met with a pontiff.
In August 1853, past commander in chief Martin Van Buren was the first person elected to the nation’s highest office to have an audience with the head of the Catholic church. While in Rome on a vacation, Pius IX afforded Van Buren the honors shown to a visiting head of state.
Pius IX also met with prior presidents Millard Fillmore in 1855, Franklin Pierce in 1857 and 11year-old Teddy Roosevelt when his family was traveling in Europe. In 1878, while visiting Italy after leaving the White House, Ulysses S. Grant spoke with Pope Leo III.
In the aftermath of World War I, Woodrow Wilson became the first sitting president to engage with the papacy.
Wilson was on a month-long victory tour of Europe before attending the Paris Peace Conference. Pope Benedict XV and Wilson both had aspiring peace plans. At the end of their short half-hour conference in Rome, an awkward moment occurred when the pontiff offered a blessing to the group present. “The Catholics in Mr. Wilson’s entourage went to a knee for the blessing; Wilson, the son of a Presbyterian minister, bowed his head instead,” according to writer Keane.
Since World War II, every commander in chief except for Harry Truman has had at least one encounter with a pope. Truman did, however, request past President Herbert Hoover to visit Pope Pius XII on his behalf. The former chief executive went to the Vatican while in Italy during his 1946 humanitarian tour of nations to obtain food for the victims of the conflict.
After Wilson, it took four decades before another meeting between a sitting chief executive and a pope would occur.
Pope John XXIII welcomed President Dwight Eisenhower to the Holy See on Dec. 6, 1959. It was a lighthearted exchange in which His Holiness tried to learn a few phrases in English. A commentary in the Religion News Service notes that “despite his efforts, the elderly pope stumbled through his English and at the end of the speech ironically quipped ‘that was a beaut!’ in Italian.”
John F. Kennedy, the first Roman Catholic president, faced scrutiny about his faith during the election. So when he arrived at the Vatican the day after the coronation of Pope Paul VI, there was speculation on whether he would bow to kiss the new pontiff’s ring. JFK was sensitive to how his behavior would be interpreted in America, so he chose to ignore Catholic etiquette and shook hands with the prelate.
In 1965, Pope Paul VI was the first reigning pontiff to travel to the United States. He addressed the United Nation and met with Lyndon Johnson at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Two years later they conferred again at the Vatican.
One author noted that LBJ’s super ego intersected with his “penchant for odd papal presents.” At their first meeting his gift to the pope was a silver framed autographed photograph of himself, and at their next visit Johnson gave him a foot high bust also of himself.
Richard Nixon met with Paul VI twice. Centered on the Vietnam War, their discussions were less than pleasant. Gerald Ford’s single papal session was more amiable.
During his 26 year reign, Pope John Paul II intersected with five different presidents and was the first of three popes to visit the White House.
Jimmy Carter welcomed John Paul II to the Executive Mansion on Oct. 6, 1979. At the end of their private meeting the pontiff gave the president a leather bound Bible to read. Seeing that it was written in Latin, Carter joked to the pope, “It would be easier for you to read than me.” The following year they met again in Rome.
Ronald Reagan had a special bond with John Paul II.
They shared a background of being actors, surviving an assassination attempt and having a fervent anti-communist stance. They met four times and helped recast Europe in the midst of the Cold War. In 1984, Reagan established formal diplomatic relations with the Vatican.
In the shadow of the first Gulf War, President George H. W. Bush’s two visits with John Paul II were not as congenial as his predecessor. Bill Clinton met with the pontiff three times in America and once in Rome. While they worked to stop the human tragedies generated by the siege of Sarajevo, Clinton’s pro-choice position produced conflict with the pope.
George W. Bush set records: he had six sessions with two different popes, incurred the most visits to the Vatican and was the only sitting president to attend a papal funeral. During Bush’s tenure Benedict XVI — who died Dec. 31 — was the second pope to visit the White House.
Barack Obama welcomed Pope Francis to the Executive Mansion and visited him and his predecessor in Italy. Donald Trump also conferred with Francis at the Vatican. The second Catholic president — Joe Biden — had papal encounters four times before his single visit as a sitting chief executive last year in Rome.
The meetings between presidents and the pope are some of the most interesting events in our nation’s history.
Stolz is a resident of James City County.