President Joe Biden visited with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Friday, Oct. 29. The meeting was eagerly anticipated, partly because Catholics and others wondered what the two leaders might say, or not say, about Biden’s pro-abortion policies: Does his support of policies promoting access to procedures that kill unborn babies preclude him from reception of holy Communion? Should he even get to meet the Holy Father?
Such questions, so widely debated by Church leaders and many people in the pews, led some observers to oppose the gathering in the first place. Others became neutral or dismissive, saying the event might yield good news or bad news — or no news — because it was merely a standard performance where two heads of state “went through the motions.”
Yet, it does a disservice to these men, to the world, and to our faith to say the visit was insignificant. President Biden made remarks indicating that the meeting included at least some back-and-forth discussion about Communion. We will never know exactly what was said, but it gives one hope to know that this secularized world still offers places and times when our leaders have the opportunity to engage in such reflection.
Pope Francis has made “encounters” a watchword of his papacy, urging Catholics to reach out to all people at “margins” of many sorts — where we listen as well as talk, accompany as well as point a path toward the truths we hold precious. That’s where God can enter in and do mysterious, wonderful things in His own ways, in His own time.
We all know other reasons why the meeting of Oct. 29 was significant. It was an important link in the chain of relationship-building between the Vatican and U.S. leaders, tracing back to President Woodrow Wilson’s visit with Pope Benedict XV in 1919.
Popes have considered it important to meet with an array of world leaders, whether or not they align perfectly with Catholic values and or personal policy preferences.
This Catholic president had common ground to discuss with the pontiff, including peacemaking, care for the poor, ways to address the pandemic, energy and other resources, and stewardship of the environment. The two held a 75-minute private discussion, much longer than Francis’ talks with many other world leaders.
Among other things, Pope Francis bestowed President Biden a collection of his writings that offer guidance to all Catholics. One document included his concerns about a “throwaway world” — concerns that extend to our “human family” where people’s well-being is sacrificed for others’ convenience and the unborn are among those whose “paramount value” is often ignored.
Perhaps the Oct. 29 meeting provided fertile ground for seeds of understanding and hope. Wherever such planting — call it missionary discipleship or the new evangelization — is taking place, this is an outbreak of potential significance in a culture crammed with trivialization and distraction.
Most often, “breaking news” gives you the big headline, but sometimes, the Good News takes time. Catholics know that through patience and understanding, lasting and meaningful outcomes are more than possible.