Judith Miller: Biden and Pope Francis meet as the Vatican welcomes visitors post-COVID

What unites the pope and the president – philosophically and politically -- seems stronger than what divides them

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Visitors have finally resumed flocking to Vatican City, at 108 acres, the world’s smallest city-state. After the Vatican’s 14-month pandemic induced closure, the longest in its modern history, Pope Francis has been receiving a bevy of prominent guests – Germany’s President Walter Steinmeier and outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and this Friday, before heading to a pair of international summits, President Biden.

The meeting between the 84-year-old Francis and the 78-year-old Biden took place on Friday afternoon local time. Francis, the spiritual leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics, and Biden, America’s second Catholic president, share many views -- on climate change, immigration and countering poverty. 

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Whether their areas of disagreement were tackled on Friday is unclear. For example, while Pope Francis has called abortion "murder," Biden has said that though he personally opposes abortion, as an elected leader he cannot impose his views on others. His Justice Department, moreover, is challenging the Texas law that virtually outlaws the practice. 

The two men have also disagreed about Biden’s early endorsement of same-sex marriage, as well as his disastrous exit from Afghanistan. Telling a Spanish reporter that he was following news of Afghan violence "with great concern," Francis said that America’s chaotic withdrawal suggested that "not all the eventualities were taken into account." 

But the bond between Biden and Frances is personal. "It was Francis who comforted the Biden family in 2015 after Biden’s son Beau died," the Washington Post recently reported, and Frances who met with Biden privately to discuss cancer research. And it is Francis’s photo that hangs prominently behind Biden’s desk in the Oval Office. "I love the guy," Biden said of the pontiff in 2016 after Francis criticized President Trump’s immigration proposals.

What unites the pope and the president – philosophically and politically -- seems stronger than what divides them. This has been especially apparent in their approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. Both Biden and Francis have endorsed lock-downs, mass vaccination, and masking to prevent the virus’s spread. In February, 2020, fear that the pontiff may have been infected (he fortunately tested negative) and the spread of the disease itself throughout Italy prompted the closure in March of St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums, the latter a cash cow thanks to its 6 million paying visitors a year, or over 20,000 a day. 

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Although 27 Holy See’s employees got the virus, none died. But last March, facing soaring pandemic-related deficits and a drop of revenue by 50 percent, Reuters reported, Pope Francis took the unprecedented step ofordering cardinals, priests, and nuns at the Holy See to take a 10% pay cut to prevent lay employees from losing their jobs. 

Though the Vatican began reopening its artistic treasures to the public in May, COVID-19 has clearly left its mark as I discovered during my tour last month of the Vatican Museum, which includes the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo’s magnificent scenes from the bible, among them, his iconic "Last Judgment" fresco. But those who wish to sample the Vatican’s treasures should come prepared. As of August 1st, the Vatican has required visitors to present a European Green Pass, or for Americans and other non-Europeans, proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid or a rapid test within 24 hours that shows no infection. 

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Although tourism dropped by 80 percent from 6 million visitors in 2019 to only 1.3 million in 2020, the museum was still crowded, mostly with Europeans. Since the reopening, said Rossana Lanucara, of RomeItalyExplora, through whom my friends and I booked our tour, some 3,000 people a day have toured the museum, most of them Europeans. So to avoid the crowds, we booked a four-hour tour -- at night. Masks were also required throughout the entire tour.

Though the visit was exhausting, the museum, which normally displays some 20,000 of its 70,000 objects, was exhilarating. 

The tour, however, is not for the weak. COVID-distancing rules meant that benches in some of the 24 galleries, including the Sistine Chapel, where visitors could ordinarily sit and contemplate Michelangelo’s depiction of Genesis or his rendition of Noah and God’s great flood, were roped off and inaccessible. 

Because of the late hour, the museum’s sole restaurant was also closed. But the thrill of seeing these masterpieces of high Renaissance art after so many years outweighed our discomfort and fatigue.

When COVID restrictions in Italy were eased after Easter and Pope Francis resumed his large live audiences in St. Peter’s Square, Francis expressed his joy at being able to address people directly once more. 

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"Thank God we can meet together again in this square," he said. "I have missed the square. Thank God and thank you for your presence," he said. 

To which I could only silently add "amen." 

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