US President Joe Biden has hailed the Pope’s leadership in fighting the climate crisis and his efforts to ensure an equitable end to the COVID-19 pandemic, following a lengthy meeting at the Vatican.
The American leader, a committed Catholic whose faith shapes many of his social and economic policies, had a private audience with the pontiff lasting for an hour and a quarter.
A further 15 minutes were then spent taking pictures and exchanging gifts in the presence of other members of the delegation, including Mr Biden’s wife, Jill.
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The meeting with former president Donald Trump in 2017 lasted about 30 minutes, while the one with Barack Obama in 2014 continued for about 50 minutes.
A White House official said the engagement between the two men was “very warm” with “laughter and clear rapport between President Biden and Pope Francis”.
Mr Biden was heard to joke with the Pope: “I’m the only Irishman you’ve ever met who’s never had a drink!”
Presents given by Pope Francis included a painting on a ceramic tile entitled The Pilgrim, and a signed copy of this year’s Message for Peace.
In a poignant moment, Mr Biden gave the Pope a challenge coin, clutching it tight before passing it to the leader of the Catholic Church, saying it was a gift in memory of his son Beau, who died of a brain tumour aged 46.
The president said: “You are the most significant warrior for peace I’ve ever met.
“My son would want me to give this to you, because of the back of it. It has the state of Delaware, the 261st Unit my son served.”
A White House statement issued following Mr Biden’s meeting said: “In his audience with Pope Francis today, President Biden thanked his holiness for his advocacy for the world’s poor and those suffering from hunger, conflict, and persecution.
“He lauded Pope Francis’ leadership in fighting the climate crisis, as well as his advocacy to ensure the pandemic ends for everyone through vaccine sharing and an equitable global economic recovery.”
The meeting came as a debate raged stateside about the president’s support for abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
This has put him at odds with many US bishops, some of whom have suggested he should be denied communion.
Mr Biden arrived at the Vatican in an unusually long motorcade of more than 80 vehicles, owing in part to Italian COVID-19 restrictions on the number of people sharing a car.
A dozen Swiss Guards in their blue and gold striped uniforms and red-plumed halberds stood at attention in the San Damaso courtyard awaiting his arrival.
He was received by Monsignor Leonardo Sapienza, who runs the papal household, and then greeted one by one the papal ushers, who lined up in the courtyard.
“It’s good to be back,” Mr Biden said as he shook the hand of one of them.
“I’m Jill’s husband,” he joked to another, before being escorted into the frescoed palace and taken upstairs to the Pope’s private library.
Mr Biden is in Rome for the G20 summit of leading and developing nations before continuing on to Scotland for the COP26 global climate conference.
The US president is due to hold talks later with his Italian and French counterparts.
All eyes will be on Mr Biden’s meeting with Emmanuel Macron following the diplomatic spat over a new military pact – dubbed AUKUS – which will see Britain and the US co-operate to develop a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines for the Australian navy.
Paris branded the deal as a “stab in the back” as it led Canberra to pull out of a £48.5bn contract with France to build 12 conventionally powered diesel-electric vessels.