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Biden meets with Pope Francis this week while in Europe for 2 summits

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This week, President Biden will meet face to face with Pope Francis. As NPR's Scott Detrow reports, it'll be a deeply personal meeting for this country's second Catholic president.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Holy Trinity Catholic Church sits in the quiet, leafy, narrow and cobblestone corner of Washington, just east of Georgetown University. Every so often this year - usually around 5:30 on Saturday evenings - that silence is broken.

(CHEERING)

DETROW: Crowds form to cheer, boo or just gawk. A big motorcade pulls around the corner, black SUVs in the front, boxy vans at the back.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Keeping America running right now.

DETROW: A cluster of reporters rush out of those vans and scurry up onto the sidewalk to document a brief glimpse of President Joe Biden walking into church.

KEVIN GILLESPIE: Well, the outside is, as you can imagine, a real production, as you say. Inside, it's a regular mass.

DETROW: Father Kevin Gillespie is the pastor of Holy Trinity, where, I should briefly note, I am a parishioner. He says Biden really tries to be a lowkey presence inside the church, where the first Catholic president, President John F. Kennedy, once worshipped, too. Biden usually slips into a pew in the back.

GILLESPIE: But he's not trying to draw any focus on himself. He's there sort of in a very humble way.

DETROW: The Jesuit priest does admit...

GILLESPIE: Yeah (laughter).

DETROW: ...He may give his homilies a closer read when he knows the president will be in the back. Biden's faith is both very private and very public. He and his staff sometimes bristle at direct questions about it. But he's talked about praying the rosary in the Situation Room during the 2011 Osama bin Laden raid. When Biden declared victory in the presidential race last year, he recited lines from On Eagle's Wings, a '70s-era hymn that has become a mainstay at Catholic funerals.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: And it goes like this - and He will raise you up on eagles' wings, bear you on the breath of dawn and make you to shine like the sun and hold you in the palm of His hand.

DETROW: Sometimes, in conversations with Gillespie at the end of mass, Biden's public and private faith come together.

GILLESPIE: And he intimated with me - this is, perhaps, some month ago - how the pope has been so supportive of him during his presidency, and leading me to believe that there is, perhaps, some kind of conversation periodically.

DETROW: Biden and Francis have met three times, according to the White House, and spoke on the phone during the transition. John Carr, who directs Georgetown's Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, says there are a lot of parallels between Biden and Jorge Bergoglio, who we now call Pope Francis.

JOHN CARR: These are older guys in their last jobs. No one else really thought they would be here. Biden was done. Bergoglio was too old. And now here they are.

DETROW: Francis shares two of the foreign policy priorities Biden emphasizes on trips like this, addressing climate change and taking on a rise in nationalism and populism. Biden quoted the pope during a high-profile speech in Warm Springs, Ga., during the final stretch of the presidential campaign.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: In a recent encyclical, Pope Francis warns us against this phony populism that appeals to, quote, "the basest and most selfish instincts."

DETROW: When it comes to how this Catholic president's policies line up with Catholic teaching, Carr says Biden and Francis can divide things into three buckets - things they agree on like the environment, things where they generally agree but have different approaches, and some high-profile areas where Biden is squarely at odds with church teaching - most notably, Biden's support for abortion rights.

CARR: My sense is the president and the pope are likely to focus on the first thing.

DETROW: That's what Francis has done since Biden has taken office. Notably, he has done this even as a high-profile group of American Catholic bishops have taken the opposite approach, criticizing Biden's support for abortion rights and calling for him to be barred from receiving communion. As the push to bar Biden from communion got more attention, Francis made a point to say he has never denied communion to anyone, ever. Father Gillespie and Holy Trinity have followed the pope's lead. The parish council put out a statement. Holy Trinity will not deny the Eucharist to persons presenting themselves to receive it.

GILLESPIE: Now, that said, it's not like everyone's agreeing with his stance on abortion. The cardinal and number of us have some reservations. But we're not talking about that at communion.

DETROW: Father Gillespie says there's one other way this church has found itself involved in the public life of the man sitting quietly in the back row. Recently, he says the State Department asked for suggestions for a gift a, quote, "high-level U.S. official" could present to a, quote, "high-level Vatican official." On Friday, Gillespie will be waiting to see if the State Department took that advice.

Scott Detrow, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.