This past Wednesday morning, the Sovereign Roman Pontiff received at the Vatican the President of the United States. Nobody cared.
When I first got up that day – pretty early, too -- the meeting was already concluded. There was no mention of it in the online version of the Washington Post. None. By evening, two related opinion pieces appeared, one of which was about what clothes the First Lady had worn. At the same time, the Wall Street Journal had a synopsis of the event, with photos, for me to examine with my morning coffee.
Regardless of whether you were breathlessly watching the event, and without really considering the possible content and effects of a meeting between this particular Pope and this particular President at this particular time, I hope you realize that the simple lack of excitement it elicited is itself worthy of wonder.
Only after more than two hundred years of nationhood, in 1984, did the United States under President Ronald Reagan establish full diplomatic relations with Holy See. Even then, only great effort and sensitivity overcame popular and political resistance to the move. It was a necessity of the time to fortify the shared project of resistance to and eventual demolition of Soviet Communist domination of Eastern Europe, but opposed by two centuries of American skepticism and even hostility toward the Holy See as a sovereign entity and global authority.
Before that, various Presidents had recognized the indispensability of the Holy See in world emergencies, beginning with Franklin Roosevelt who circumvented the need for Congressional approval of an ambassador by sending a “personal representative” to the Holy Father as Europe spun into war under competing atheist ideologue dictators.
The first incumbent U.S. President to meet a reigning Pope was Woodrow Wilson, of all people, perhaps the most anti-Catholic of all twentieth century presidents. It was 1919, and he was hoping to establish a League of Nations to bring about world peace after the Great War. Gosh, who tipped him off that the Pope in Rome, in this case Benedict XV, might know something about a league of nations, and about peace?
After that, next was Dwight Eisenhower. Of course, John Kennedy visited the Vatican as well, continuing a progression of Presidents to the Vatican that has continued to our day. Every one has called, even Gerald Ford in his brief tenure. Lyndon Johnson was the first President to receive a Pope in the U.S., when Paul VI came in 1965 to New York for the day, to speak to the United Nations. Jimmy Carter was the first President to welcome a Pope to the White House, when John Paul II arrived on the first of his pilgrimages to the U.S., a tradition that each of his successors has maintained.
When I was in seminary, President Clinton came to call at the Vatican. The Papal Household invited to the Apostolic Palace all U.S. seminarians and priests in studies. We were eager to see the Pope, who had been out of circulation for months after being injured in a fall. But the President, not so much. We dutifully answered the call of our Holy Father, who remained secluded, and settled for a speech by the President.
The only time I have ever met a U.S. President was in Rome, the night before John Paul II’s funeral, when at a reception at the US Ambassador’s residence I spoke with Clinton and both Presidents Bush. Historically unlikely as it is, I have been a resident of the Capital for most of the past thirty-one years, and my only direct contact with my own President or his predecessors was brought about by the Pope.
This past Wednesday morning, the Sovereign Roman Pontiff received at the Vatican the President of the United States. Nobody cared. That’s a big change – but is it entirely an improvement?Monsignor Smith