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Biden’s first papal visit: Dialog article from 1980 describes then-senator’s Vatican meeting with Pope John Paul II

Then-Sen. Joe Biden stands next to wife, Jill, as they meet with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in April 1980. This photo and article describing the meeting appeared in The Dialog.

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden will have an audience with Pope Francis on Oct. 29 at the Vatican. In April 1980, then-Senator Biden met at the Vatican with Pope John Paul II as part of a tour of Europe. Upon his return to Delaware, Biden was interviewed by The Dialog and described the visit in this article first published April 18, 1980.

Sen. Biden meets with pontiff

By Kathleen M. Graham

Sen. Joseph R. Biden, Jr., (D-Del.) ended a fact finding trip to Turkey, Greece and Italy last week with a lengthy, private meeting with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican.

Biden, chairman of the European Affairs Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and five other senators spent 10 days meeting with officials of those countries and touring areas of the Persian Gulf.

A highlight of the trip came for Biden April 12 when he spent 45 minutes alone with Pope John Paul in the pontiff’s private library at the Vatican. Purpose of the unusually long session, Biden said, was to discuss the impact of the demise of détente on the freedom of those living behind the Iron Curtain — a situation heightened by the deteriorating heath of Yugoslav President Josip Tito. There has been widespread international concern that Tito’s death could trigger a Soviet move into Yugoslavia.

Biden said he sought the pope’s advice, as a church and world leader, on Czechoslovakia; what is happening in the demise of East-West relations, and what course the U.S. should follow in dealing with Eastern countries.

Biden summarized some of the pope’s comments, saying that the pontiff expressed concern that the demise of détente will have a negative impact on the ability of people of all faiths to practice their religion, particularly in Czechoslovakia. The pope also is concerned, Biden said, over the growth of communism in the Western Hemisphere, especially in Latin and South America. The world must recognize the great disparity between the very rich and the very poor and communism’s illusion of being able to provide some sort of equality, the pontiff indicated to Biden.

Pope Francis greets then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden after both spoke at a conference on adult stem cell research at the Vatican April 29, 2016. In a recent interview, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Vatican ambassador to the U.S., said he is helping the Holy See prepare for Biden’s first presidential visit to the Vatican, sometime during an Oct. 30-31 Rome summit of leading rich and developed nations. “It would be an anomaly if he did not meet the pope while in Rome,” especially since Biden is the first Catholic president in 58 years, the nuncio said. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Discussing human rights, Pope John Paul also told the Delaware senator that the American people are looked to by Eastern Europeans as “the people,” the citadel of freedom. The American people have a special burden, the pope told Biden, and that is never to forget the plight of his native Poland and Eastern Europe. The pontiff cited President Jimmy Carter’s trip to Poland shortly after the U.S. leader took office as a journey which helped to rekindle the spirits of the Polish people.

Biden said he responded to that comment by assuring the pope of what a powerfully positive impact his first trip to the U.S. as pontiff last fall had on all Americans.

The senator’s visit to the Vatican was his first one-on-one encounter with the pope. Biden called John Paul one of the most impressive world leaders he had ever met and remarked on the pontiff’s personal magnetism, warmth and sense of humor.

“He kept kidding me about how young I am,” Biden said, adding that his discussions with the pope were relatively uninterrupted, even though several times during their conversation aides knocked on the library door, only to be waved away by John Paul.

President Joe Biden and Pope Francis are seen in this composite photo. The White House announced Oct. 14, 20201, that the two will meet at the Vatican Oct. 29. (CNS composite; photos by Jonathan Ernst, Reuters, and Paul Haring)

“He’s intense and attentive,” the senator said, noting that the holy father made a point of pulling his chair around from his desk to sit closer to his visitor. Conversing in English, the pope often interspersed his comments with physical gestures Biden said — reaching over from time to time and touching the senator’s arm as he made his point.

Afterwards, the pope met with some members of Biden’s party, including the senator’s wife, Jill, posed for photographs and presented small gifts.

Among those in the room at that time was Oblate Father Roberto Balducelli, pastor of St. Anthony’s Parish, Wilmington, who was visiting Italy and spent two days in Rome with the Bidens.

Delaware’s Democratic senator also had the opportunity to meet for an hour April 11 with Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, papal secretary of state, an office generally considered the second-ranking post in the Vatican hierarchy.

A file photo shows St. John Paul II in 1978 in Rome, days after his election. Pope John Paul II reminded us in the encyclical “Sollicitudo Rei Socialis” that “the goods of this world are originally meant for all.” (CNS photo/Mal Langsdon, Reuters)

As secretary for the Council for the Public Affairs of the Church (Vatican foreign minister) since 1967, Cardinal Casaroli has been the Vatican’s chief negotiator with East European communist governments.

Although Cardinal Casaroli speaks some English, Father Balducelli acted as interpreter during the interview, which was conducted in Italian.