If you have Oval Office aspirations, then you should be prepared to meet the Pope—Catholic or not. While Dwight D. Eisenhower wasn’t the first U.S. president to meet the Bishop of Rome (then Pope John XXIII) in the late 1950s, he started a popular trend. The trend has become so established, in fact, that each president to follow in Eisenhower’s footsteps has chosen to extend the hand of geniality to the reigning pope. To unfamiliar and young eyes, this pattern may give off the impression that the United Sates has always maintained such a warm and cordial relationship with the Holy See and the Catholic faith at large, and, while this is certainly the case now, the transatlantic meet-and-greet is a relatively modern invention.
The history of Catholicism in the United States is too long and complex and fascinating to include here, but it’s worth remembering how far the faith has come in terms of equality and acceptance, given that anti-Catholicism was the official government policy of America’s 13 original colonies and that, only a few hundred years ago, Catholic priests were being hunted and banished in waves of intolerance near the Atlantic seaboard.
Fast forward to 2014, and the Catholic Church has become the largest religious denomination in the US, with over 78 million members, many of whom are no doubt tweeting to or about Pope Francis (@Pontifex) as you read this. It goes without saying that it’s in any president’s best interests to keep relations between the White House and the Holy See as neighborly as possible.
On March 27th, President Obama will meet for the first time with Jorge Mario Bergoglio, otherwise known as Pope Francis, in his papal pad in Vatican City. To celebrate the meeting of two of the world’s most influential icons, let’s look back at a few rendezvous of presidents and popes.
Woodrow Wilson & Pope Benedict XV
It’s no surprise that during a war that claimed the lives of over 40 million people worldwide, some people, if not most, called for peace. Pope Benedict XV was one of these people. With a papacy that began only a few months after the onset of the World War I, Benedict’s tenure was mostly overshadowed by the ideological strife and military horror that surrounded it. During the war, he announced the neutrality of the Holy See and spent much of his pontificate trying to mediate peace among warring parties.
Across the Atlantic, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was also attempting, to no avail, to assuage the global conflict (both before the US ultimately entered the fray and after, when his League of Nations failed). While the peace efforts of both Benedict and Wilson proved unsuccessful, they forged a kinship of nonviolence. On January 4, 1919, Wilson took a break from a post-war tour of Europe to stop in Vatican City to meet Benedict in person, thereby being the first U.S. president to meet a reigning Pope—a tradition that would eventually take root decades later. At the time, His Holiness presented Wilson with a mosaic of St. Peter, which still hangs in the Woodrow Wilson House in Washington, D.C.
John F. Kennedy & Pope Paul VI
It seems only fitting that the only Catholic president the U.S. has ever had, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was granted “one of the longest private audiences” ever with Pope Paul VI, the Supreme Pontiff from 1963 until his death in 1978. At the time, though, a number of Americans were wary of Kennedy and distrusted his connection to the Catholic Church. While he garnered enough support to win the election in 1960, JFK faced considerable challenges on the road to the White House, with a large portion of American Protestants fearing that Kennedy would take orders from the Pope.
But Kennedy, promoting an “absolute” separation of church and state to voters, eventually rose above Richard Nixon in the polls. On July 2, 1963, Kennedy traveled to Vatican City to meet Pope Paul VI, and the two leaders spent the day mostly discussing civil rights. In late November, after Kennedy was shot in Dallas, Texas, Pope Paul VI allowed a U.S. film crew to enter his papal apartment (a very unusual occurrence) to record his condolences for the ambitious President he so recently met, referring to the assassination as “so dastardly a crime.”
Ronald Reagan & Pope John Paul II
Imagine you are in Alaska. Now imagine that two behemoths of 20th century influence, Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, are standing in front of you. No, this isn’t a dream sequence from a Michel Gondry film. On May 2, 1984, the Gipper and John Paul the Great crossed paths in America’s most northern wilderness and spoke to an audience of 5,000 at the Fairbanks International Airport. While not as illustrious a venue as the White House or the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City, the airport provided a convenient convergence for the two premiers, with John Paul II stopping to refuel en route to Seoul and Reagan taking an Alaskan respite while returning from China.
During their exchange, the two spoke at length of arms control, East-West relations, and various regional issues. John Paul II requested “an openness of heart” and “a readiness to accept differences” from the 40th president, while Reagan pronounced that the Pope was “a source of solace, inspiration, and hope” for those under oppression worldwide. With such distinguished guests at hand, the residents of Fairbanks did what anyone in a rarely visited, frontier town should do: they closed all schools, arrived at the airport before the sun was up, draped welcoming banners throughout the streets, sold T-shirts claiming “Great Minds in the Great Lands,” and cheered their hearts out.
Barack Obama & Pope Benedict XVI
Obama is no pope novice, if that’s what you’re thinking. While he may be meeting Francis for the first time later this month, the 44th President of the United States already has about 40 minutes of papal interaction under his belt. On July 10th, 2009, only hours after the G8 Summit in Italy, Obama met Pope Benedict XVI for a brief tête-à-tête at the pontiff’s study in Vatican City. The two men discussed issues of common ground—peace in the Middle East, climate change, and the global economic crisis—as well as topics on which they disagreed, most notably abortion rights and the scientific and medical potential of stem cell research.
Brief as the exchange was, there was still time for a little gift giving, with Obama presenting to Benedict a stole that once covered the body of John Neumann, America's first Catholic bishop to be made a saint. Benedict, on the other hand, bestowed upon Obama one of his own works: a recently penned encyclical (a letter sent from the Pope to the bishops of the world) bound in leather and containing Benedict’s argument for an ethical approach to economic policy. After the requisite photo, Obama left for Ghana. One can only hope that when Obama meets Francis—a pope with a decidedly more progressive approach to his role—the world will witness the first presidential, papal fist bump.