VATICAN CITY (RNS) — United States Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken met with Pope Francis on Monday at the Vatican, where the two discussed religious freedom in China, the climate crisis, immigration and refugees.
“The meeting was extremely warm and very wide ranging,” Blinken told reporters after the meeting. “Just speaking for myself and speaking for the United States, I was very gratified by the meeting and gratified as well by the strong leadership of his Holiness on the pandemic, on climate change, on the challenge that we have to address when it comes to irregular migration and refugees.”
The meeting lasted roughly 40 minutes, with Francis and Blinken discussing a wide variety of issues with the help of an interpreter. Blinken is the highest-ranking official of the Biden administration to meet with the pope since the inauguration in January.
Biden has yet to meet Francis as president, and, barring an impromptu meeting, he will be the first U.S. president not to meet with the pope in his first 6 months in office since Ronald Reagan sat down with Pope John Paul II in June of 1982, nearly 18 months after Reagan’s inauguration.
The audience with Blinken took place shortly after U.S. bishops voted in favor of writing a document that might ban pro-choice politicians from receiving Communion, largely aimed at Biden, the first Catholic U.S. president to be elected in more than 60 years. Asked by reporters about tensions between the White House and the U.S. episcopacy, Blinken avoided a direct answer.
“One of the luxuries of my job is that I don’t do domestic politics,” he said, before adding that he “can certainly say it was truly a memorable and wonderful moment to have the opportunity to talk to His Holiness.”
A statement by Vatican spokesperson Matteo Bruni stressed the “cordial atmosphere” of the meeting and reported that Francis took the opportunity to recall his apostolic visit to the United States in 2015. The pope also “expressed his affection and attention to the people of the United States of America,” Bruni said.
Blinken and Francis discussed the possibility of working together “to address global challenges and the needs of the world’s least fortunate and most vulnerable, including refugees and migrants,” according to a statement by Ned Price, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State. The two also addressed the need to “tackle the climate crisis,” as Francis and President Biden prepare for the COP26 summit on the environment that will take place in Glasgow in November.
Francis has used his influential voice in the international arena to push forward climate awareness, and Biden has often quoted the pontiff’s calls to care for creation and the most vulnerable.
The humanitarian crises in Lebanon, Syria, Ethiopia, Belarus and Venezuela were also on the agenda during the high-level Vatican audience.
The Vatican has been repeatedly pushing on the question of Lebanon in meetings with foreign delegations. The country is faced with daunting financial and social troubles following the massive explosion that occurred in the port of its capital, Beirut, last summer.
On July 1, Francis has called for a Day of Prayer and Reflection for the struggling country, with the participation of various religious groups and representatives. The pope has also expressed his desire to visit Lebanon once the political situation is stable.
Francis gave Blinken a relief showcasing the plight of migrants and a collection of his official writings, while the secretary of state gave the pontiff a sculpture representing a dove carrying an olive branch as a symbol “of peace and freedom.”
Blinken also met with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Francis’ right-hand man and the head of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, and with Archbishop Paul Gallagher who is in charge of the Holy See’s diplomatic relationships.
At the meeting with Vatican officials, Blinken also “discussed human rights and religious freedom in China.” Beijing has been a thorny issue in U.S. and Vatican relations, especially under the previous administration, with White House officials calling for the pope to increase efforts in holding China accountable for its human rights violations.
The Vatican and the People’s Republic of China agreed to extend a provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops in October 2020, which sparked controversy due to its secretive nature and fears that it might muzzle Pope Francis’ ability to enforce his moral authority on Beijing.
The COVID-19 pandemic was also a topic of discussion between Blinken and Pope Francis, with both parties promising to continue in their effort to guarantee wider vaccine distribution, especially for poorer and developing nations.
“We want to see as many people, not just in our own country but around the world, get vaccinated and to do so as quickly as possible,” the U.S. secretary of state told reporters.