Ahead of President Biden's visit with Pope Francis on Friday, a question was posed in a White House briefing about whether the meeting will be "personal or formal," and the answer from national security adviser Jake Sullivan was, "Both."
Biden is just the second Catholic president, and while John F. Kennedy took pains to downplay his faith, Biden often places it front and center. He quoted St. Augustine in his inaugural address and regularly cites Pope Francis in speeches.
Biden has talked and written about praying the Rosary in the Situation Room during the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Perhaps the most powerful signal to America's practicing and cultural Catholics came the night Biden spoke after being declared the winner of the 2020 presidential election. At a raucous honking drive-in rally, Biden recited lines from "On Eagles Wings," a '70s-era hymn that has become a mainstay at Catholic funerals.
"It goes like this," Biden said. "He will raise you up on eagle's wings. Bear you like the break of dawn. Make you to shine like the sun, and hold you in the palm of His hand."
Biden's religion is so engrained in his public persona, yet at the same time he and his staff treat the matter as deeply private. For all those moments Biden has made it central to his public identity, the White House often bristles at questions about his faith; they make sure reporters are nowhere near the church services he attends.
The contrast between that public and private faith can play out during those Masses. When Biden spends the weekend in Washington, D.C., he often attends Saturday evening Mass at Holy Trinity, a historic Georgetown church where Kennedy worshiped, too.
Outside, crowds form, motorcades block the streets, and reporters scurry into place to snap pictures and shout questions as Biden makes the brief walk from a black SUV into the church's door.
"The outside is, as you can imagine, a real production," Fr. Kevin Gillespie, S.J., told NPR. "Inside, it's a regular Mass."
Gillespie is the pastor of Holy Trinity (where, I should briefly note, I am a parishioner). When Biden slips into one the back pews of the church just as the service begins, it's a coordinated move to minimize disruption. "He's not trying to draw any focus on himself," said Gillespie. "He's there sort of in a very humble way."
The Jesuit priest does say it's hard to fully treat the president like any other person. Among other things, Gillespie admits he'll give his homily a closer read when he knows Biden is coming.
And sometimes in conversations with Gillespie at the end of Mass, Biden's public and private faith come together.
"He intimated with me, this was perhaps a month ago, how the pope has been so supportive of him during his presidency," Gillespie told NPR. "Leading me to believe there is perhaps some kind of conversation, periodically."
The president and the pope share a lot of common ground
Biden and Francis have met three times, all when Biden was vice president, according to the White House. The two men spoke on the phone during the transition, as well.
Francis' audience with Biden at the Vatican on Friday will, of course, be a formal sitdown between two heads of state. It will also be an opportunity for two kindred spirits to compare notes on common goals on global issues, as well as more basic parallels in their lives.
"These are older guys in their last jobs. No one else really thought they would be here. Biden was done. [Then-Cardinal Jorge] Bergoglio was too old. And now, here they are," said John Carr, the director of Georgetown University's Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life.
Francis shares two of the foreign policy priorities Biden emphasizes on trips like this: addressing climate change and taking on a rise in nationalism and populism.
"In a recent encyclical, Pope Francis warns us against this 'phony populism' that appeals to — quote — 'the basest and most selfish instincts,' " Biden said during a high-profile speech in Warm Springs, Ga., during the final stretch of the presidential campaign, going on to quote the document at length.
Avoiding their disagreements, including over abortion
When it comes to how this Catholic president's policies line up with Catholic teaching, Carr said Biden and Francis can divide things into three buckets:
- Things they agree on, like the environment.
- Areas where they generally agree, but have different approaches.
- The high-profile areas where Biden's policies are squarely at odds with church teaching — most notably, his support for abortion rights.
"My sense is the president and the pope are likely to focus on the first thing," said Carr.
That's what Francis has done since Biden has taken office.
Notably, he's done this even as a high-profile group of American Catholic bishops have taken the opposite approach, criticizing Biden's support for abortion rights and calling for him to be barred from receiving communion.
When several American bishops released a statement on the day Biden was inaugurated and slammed his support for abortion rights, the Vatican countered with a warmer, welcoming statement. As the push to bar Biden from communion got more attention in recent months — a formal report on the question will be released at an upcoming conference of American bishops — Francis made a point in a press conference to say he's never denied communion to anyone, ever.
The debate isn't theoretical for Fr. Gillespie and Holy Trinity, where Biden attends Mass. They have followed the pope's lead, and the parish council put out a statement earlier this year: "Holy Trinity will not deny the Eucharist to persons presenting themselves to receive it."
"Now, that said, it's not like everyone's agreeing with his stance on abortion," Gillespie clarified. "The cardinal and a number of us have reservations. But we're not talking about that at communion."
Gillespie said there's one other way this church has found itself involved in the public life of the man sitting quietly in the back row.
Recently, he said, the State Department asked for suggestions for a gift a "high-level U.S. official" could present to a "high-level Vatican official."
On Friday, Gillespie will be waiting to see if the State Department took his advice.