The Complicated History Of Popes And U.S. Presidents : It's All Politics Pope Francis' visit to Washington marks the 29th time a pope has sat down for a meeting with a president of the United States. As usual, politics will provide the backdrop.

The Complicated History Of Popes And U.S. Presidents

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President Obama's meeting today with Pope Francis continues a nearly century-old tradition. NPR's Don Gonyea brings us that history.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: This is a nearly 100-year-old recording of the Vatican choir.


VATICAN CHOIR: (Singing in foreign language).

GONYEA: That's about the same time as the first-ever meeting between a president and a pope in 1919. Woodrow Wilson was in Europe. Catholic Democrats were on the rise in the U.S., so Wilson, a Democrat, was convinced to add a stop at the Vatican to visit Benedict XV. Father Matt Malone of the Jesuit magazine America says the meeting was, in part, a nod to politics.

MATT MALONE: You're beginning to see the emergence of Catholics, who were basically European immigrants, as a force within the Democratic Party. And I think it absolutely was part of the political calculation.

GONYEA: It would be 40 years before another president would visit the Vatican again. There were reasons for the gap - the Great Depression, World War II - but there was also a persistent anti-Catholic bias in the U.S. That's something candidate John F. Kennedy had to address in his 1960 campaign.


JOHN F KENNEDY: I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president, should he be Catholic, how to act.

GONYEA: To this day, Kennedy is the only Catholic U.S. president. This is from the summer of 1963.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Vatican City is one of the last stops for President Kennedy on his European visit, and he is received with pomp and ceremony.

GONYEA: Since then, every U.S. president has met with the pope. But it wasn't until 1979 that a pontiff visited the White House. Jimmy Carter welcomed John Paul II.


JIMMY CARTER: Our new friend, the people of my country have waited a long time for this meeting.

GONYEA: As men of deep faith, John Paul and Carter hit it off. And Father Malone of America Magazine says the Polish-born pope had a powerful agenda.

MALONE: John Paul II was a committed anti-Communist and cold warrior. He already then had in mind that he wanted to enlist in the struggle to free the world from communism.

GONYEA: Soon after, John Paul found a president also eager for that fight. Ronald Reagan welcomed him to the U.S. in 1987.


RONALD REAGAN: In Poland, you experience Nazism and communism. As pope, you suffered a terrorist attack that nearly claimed your life. Still, you proclaim that the central message of our own time is not hatred, but love.

GONYEA: In 27 years, John Paul II held more than a dozen meetings with U.S. presidents. One of the most famous came late in his life, in 2004, at the Vatican with George W. Bush. I was on that presidential trip and described the moment this way on NPR.


GONYEA: The pope was in a wheelchair. The president was seated to his right. John Paul spoke first, reading from a prepared statement, his hands shaking from Parkinson's disease, his voice halting.

JOHN PAUL: (Unintelligible).

GONYEA: It's hard to make out, but the message was clear - a strong condemnation of the Iraq war. Despite the criticism, Bush later spoke warmly about the pope.


GEORGE W BUSH: For those of you who have ever met him, you know I'm telling you the truth when I tell you that being in his presence is an awesome experience.

GONYEA: No American president finds a pope who agrees with them on everything. That's true of Obama and Francis. But the relationship between popes and presidents is seen as important by both sides, and politics always has a seat at the table. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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