restricted access Presidents and Popes, Face to Face: From Benedict XV to John Paul II
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Presidents and Popes, Face to Face: From Benedict XV to John Paul II* James F. Garneau The Funeral O n April 6, 2005, a sitting president of the United States and two former presidents , accompanied by the First Lady, the secretary of state, and the White House chief of staff, having arrived in Rome, Italy, on Air Force One, were taken to the Vatican, where they filed into St. Peter’s Basilica, proceeded to the Confession of Peter, and there dropped to their knees before the mortal remains of His Holiness, Pope John Paul II, who had died on April 2. For most of the long course of American history, such a report in the newspapers of the nation would have caused rioting in the streets and expressions of outrage by members of the fourth estate. In April of 2005, however, accompanied by the U.S. flag flying at half-staff throughout the nation, by order of the president, it all seemed appropriate. It hardly caused a ripple in the editorial pages. While many might posit such a changed climate to the man whose funeral captivated the attention of the world, in fact a longer history of the relationship of presidents and popes contributed to the changed climate and perceptions. Without a doubt, the pontificate of John Paul II created a new level of interaction and cooperation between the Holy See and the United States. But the journey of three American presidents to Rome in April of 2005 began long before John Paul II took possession of the Chair of Peter in 1978. This paper explores the personal encounters of presidents and popes, mostly of the twentieth century. It is, therefore, intended, at least in part, to be a diplomatic history, while also noting the cultural and political contexts for these meetings. Why did the first and subsequent presidents who traveled to Rome go to meet the reigning popes? Why did popes come to this country and meet presidents? Who wanted these meetings to happen? Who, perhaps, didn’t? Who stood to gain? And did these meetings produce obvious results that can be judged in terms of success and failure? 89 *This article is a revision of the John Tracy Ellis Lecture that I presented at The Catholic University of America on October 26, 2005. Woodrow Wilson The first sitting U.S. president to visit the bishop of Rome was Woodrow Wilson. He met with Benedict XV on January 4, 1919. Prior to that encounter, there were two former presidents who had gone to Rome with the intention of meeting with the pope, Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt. After their terms in office, each of these men traveled extensively. The first, while on a round-the-world voyage (from May 1877 to December 1879), paid a visit to Pope Leo XIII in 1878. The second, though scheduled to have an audience with Pope Pius X, in Rome, on April 5, 1910, decided at the last not to do so. Grant’s visit may have been motivated, in part, by his desire to gain the growing Catholic vote. Upon his return to the country, Grant became a candidate for the Republican nomination to an unprecedented third term as president. He lost that bid to James Garfield, who defeated Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock, another former commander in the Union Army. More than three decades later, Theodore Roosevelt, despite strong and positive longstanding personal and political relationships with leading Catholics in America,1 as well as further political ambitions that would lead him to yet another bid for the White House (in 1912), declined to conform to the Holy See’s conditions for a papal audience. Earlier in that same year, 1910, former Vice President Charles Fairbanks had been denied the opportunity for an audience with the pope because of a prior meeting scheduled with students from the Methodist College in Rome. Arriving in Europe from a safari in Africa, Roosevelt refused to be bound by the insistence of the papal secretary of state, Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val, that such a violation of papal protocol not be repeated in his case. And as a result, there was no visit with Pius...


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