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Iconography rich as leaders meet

NCR Staff
Castel Gandolfo, Italy

When a pope meets a U.S. president, something more is in the air than usually attends meetings of world leaders. More than political titans, these are embodiments of two mythic institutions. The White House symbolizes earthly power; the Vatican centuries-long spiritual tradition.

That clash of cultures was on display when President George W. Bush came to call on Pope John Paul II July 23 at Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s summer residence in the Alban Hills above Rome.

The iconography of power was evident at Bush’s arrival. A fleet of vehicles flown over by the White House included two stretch Cadillac limousines, two Chevy Blazers, a van that served as a “control vehicle,” and the presidential car itself -- armor-plated, with at least three layers of bulletproof window glass, small turrets in the doors and five radio antennae atop the trunk. Its motor sounded like a small jet engine.

A blue-uniformed Air Force officer carried the president’s nuclear football -- a black bag with a transmitter and launch codes enabling Bush to order a nuclear assault from wherever he happens to be.

Meanwhile, in the inner courtyard, the Vatican’s trademark passion for anachronism was on parade. A column of 18 Swiss Guards in the yellow and blue uniforms designed by Michelangelo periodically brought their halberds and pikes to attention as various ecclesiastical dignitaries passed. (Their heel-clicking was especially energetic for Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s secretary of state).

The focal point of the papal retinue were, as usual, the charmingly purposeless “Gentlemen of His Holiness.” Visiting dignitaries to the pope are always greeted by these scions of noble Roman families, who before a 1968 reform were known as the “Chamberlains of the Sword and Cape.”

The presence of these 11 men is a typically illogical flourish of Vatican etiquette, given that the “Gentlemen of His Holiness” today have no assignment except to seat VIPs at papal events. It would be a bit like having the ushers at the Kennedy Center say hello to Vladimir Putin or Jiang Zemin. Normally imperturbable, the 11 passed the time before Bush’s arrival by adjusting their cummerbunds and polishing their papal medallions, then were startled as Bush greeted them by grasping their elbows in a Texan gesture of amiability.

Laura Bush, the Bushes’ daughter Barbara, and key foreign policy adviser Condoleeza Rice wore the black dresses and head scarves (mantillas) that women are supposed to don for papal audiences. Yet the party’s command of Vatican protocol nevertheless proved a bit spotty. In direct address, the pope is always “Your Holiness” or “Holy Father.” Bush, however, fell back on a typically American expression of polite respect: “sir.”

Following the predictable high-level handshake, the popping of flashbulbs, the exchange went like this:

Pope: “You were at the Roman Forum yesterday.”

Bush: “Yes sir, it was so beautiful. And this place is beautiful.”

Pope: “Popes come here in the summer.”

President: “Yes sir, I understand that, and I can see why.”

As at any meeting of leaders, though, each had business to conduct: a policy agenda, a set of political disiderata.

Bush, of course, has strong political motives for wanting to be on the pope’s good side. No administration in recent American history has made such a point of openly soliciting Catholic support. Bush has met with scores of Catholic bishops, archbishops and cardinals, and on March 22 he opened the new John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington. In Rome he squeezed in a brief afternoon visit to the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, where he met American cardinals Edmund Szoka and James Stafford.

In many ways, the interest is mutual. Vatican personnel tend to see Bush in a more favorable light than his predecessor, Bill Clinton, with whom they fought bitter battles over abortion and population control in international forums.

One senior Vatican official said, off the record, that he thinks Bush has “more affinity in his ideas” with the Catholic church. Yet, he cautioned, personal rapport only goes so far. “I think he’s more sympathetic than the other guy, but right now it’s a question of business,” he said.

In a separate session with Bush after his meeting with the pope, Sodano and Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican’s foreign minister, appealed for help on two points of business: China and Saudi Arabia. Both are countries where the Vatican has long complained about restrictions on religious freedom. The Vatican official said Sodano and Tauran hope Bush will use his influence to convince those governments to relax their policies.

In a gesture of support for Bush, Sodano let it be known that Bush handled these topics and others, including the Middle East and Africa, without referring to his aides.

John Paul offered a standard catalogue of exhortations: combat poverty, be open to immigrants, cancel debt, promote religious freedom. He also warned of a “coarsening of conscience” on right-to-life issues such as euthanasia and abortion.

The pope made a direct reference to stem-cell research, urging Bush to reject “proposals for the creation for research purposes of human embryos.”

Bush confined himself to praising John Paul’s role in encouraging people “to stand, unafraid, before tyrants.” He displayed a familiarity with Catholic argot by saying John Paul reflects “the splendor of truth,” a reference to a 1993 papal encyclical, and by thanking John Paul for promoting a “culture of life.”

Afterward, as Bush walked from his final handshake with Sodano to his rolling fortress of a limo, reporters had a brief opportunity to shout questions. Bush stayed silent, until NCR offered this probing query:

“Mr. President, how was your meeting?”

As he ducked in the car, Bush responded: “Very good.”

Not the most stirring exit line ever spoken, but given the warm tenor of the encounter, it seemed at least to have the virtue of sincerity.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org.

National Catholic Reporter, August 10, 2001