VATICAN CITY — The large motorcade crept along the tree-lined road shortly before 11 a.m., and pulled up in front of the medieval St. John’s Tower in the Vatican Gardens.
On stepping out of his black limousine, President Bush opened his arms to greet Pope Benedict XVI, but held back from hugging him and shook his hand instead.
“It’s an honor,” said the Pope as he greeted the president June 13 on Bush’s fifth and probably last visit to the Vatican as president.
“It is such an honor, such an honor,” replied Bush.
Such an unprecedented welcome marked a break in Vatican protocol. For the first time in living memory, a Pope received a political leader in the Vatican Gardens — a rare reception normally reserved for close religious leaders.
It was a very picturesque setting: The beautiful gardens were in full bloom and the sun was shining. The two leaders posed for photographs on the steps of the round tower, flanked by first lady Laura Bush and Mary Ann Glendon, the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See.
“We are surrounded by impressive women,” quipped the president.
The two leaders entered the medieval building and took an elevator up to the top floor where they held closed-door talks for half an hour in a bright, ornate room. Pope John XXIII had the 12th century tower renovated in 1962 as a papal retreat house.
It now serves as a place to stay for special guests of the Pope, and adjoins the ancient Leonine Wall built to protect Vatican City from intruders.
Sitting down with the president across a desk, Benedict asked him how his European trip was going. Bush said it was proceeding well, although it was long.
Laura Bush and Glendon remained outside with American Archbishop James Harvey, prefect of the Pontifical Household. Subsequently they were joined by the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.
In a statement, the Vatican described the talks between the Pope and the president as “cordial.” It said the Holy Father expressed his gratitude for the “warm and exceptional welcome” he had received in the United States and at the White House during his visit in April, and thanked the president for his “commitment in defense of fundamental moral values.”
The discussions then turned to the main themes of international politics: relations between the United States and Europe, the Middle East and efforts for peace in the Holy Land, globalization, the food crisis and international trade, and the achievement of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals.
After concluding their talks, the Pope gave the president a short tour of the tower’s upper level before taking the elevator back down where he was introduced to senior Vatican officials led by Cardinal Bertone. The president greeted them like old friends.
It was then time to exchange gifts: Bush gave Benedict a framed photograph of them both on his recent visit to the White House, plus a photo album of that day, which coincided with the Pope’s 81st birthday. The Holy Father leafed through it and was clearly happy to be reminded of that memorable occasion.
Benedict, meanwhile, presented Bush with framed photo of them both as well as a historical four-volume set on St. Peter’s Basilica.
Afterward, the Pope and the president went outside to take a short walk together alone through the gardens, stopping momentarily in front of a large bell that commemorates the Jubilee Year of 2000.
Meanwhile, the first lady and Glendon took a different path, but all met up at the Lourdes Grotto — an authentic reproduction of the Grotto of Massabielle of Lourdes that was donated by French Catholics in 1902 to Pope Leo XIII.
Laura Bush later told reporters on Air Force One that as she toured the grounds, she paid special attention to the Our Lady of Guadalupe statue in the Mexico Garden “because I’ve always had a particular interest in the Virgin of Guadalupe because of our closeness to Mexico in Texas.”
Said the former first lady of the Lone Star State: “The Virgin of Guadalupe is also one of the saints that people in Texas look to,” and she added that she and the president were “very honored” to have had the chance to host the Holy Father when he visited the United States in April.
“I think he was really very moved by the outpouring of warmth from the American people, both Catholics and non-Catholics who revere the Pope as someone … with unquestionable moral authority,” she said.
After the garden tour, the Holy Father was introduced to members of the president’s entourage before the group sat down in plain wooden deck chairs to listen to two pieces sung by the Pontifical Sistine Choir: “Exultate Deo” by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, and “Alma Redemptoris Mater” by Msgr. Giuseppe Liberto. The choir was directed by Msgr. Liberto.
Once the performance was over, all the singers and Msgr. Liberto were introduced to the president, who asked them where they went to school. Bush also apologized for the inconvenience his visit might have caused them.
“We’re creating chaos here, I apologize,” said the president, who had spent three days in Rome and was surrounded by an enormous security operation that closed off many streets.
After a few more photographs, it was time to say farewell, slightly earlier than scheduled. Bush briskly shook Pope Benedict’s hand and then patted him on the back as he left.
Although there was no public prayer together as some expected, the visit was clearly one that pleased both leaders. The admiration the president feels for the Pope is undeniable, so much so that the Italian press was full of speculation that Bush will convert to Catholicism once he leaves office.
The rumors were fueled by remarks from Nancy Goodman Brinker, the White House head of protocol, who had said on the eve of the visit that Bush was “a huge fan of this Pope,” had “total respect” for Benedict and “totally supported” him.
However, both Vatican and U.S. officials said this referred to the fact that despite their differences on the war in Iraq, Bush and Benedict agree on the need to defend Christian values in the West, and on abortion, same-sex “marriage,” embryonic stem-cell research, and Third World poverty.
“It is not true,” White House Press Secretary Dana Perino told Religion News Service. “He has often, in jest, been called the first Catholic president — but he’s not planning to convert.”
Edward Pentin writes