ROME (AP) — President Joe Biden received Communion at St. Patrick’s Church during Saturday Vigil Mass, a day after saying Pope Francis told him he should continue to partake in the sacrament, despite the opposition of some conservatives in the U.S. upset with his position on abortion.
Biden and his wife, Jill, visited the English-speaking church that is the main place of worship for the American Catholic community in Rome and is located near the U.S. Embassy. The president stopped in between events at the Group of 20 world leaders’ summit taking place in the city this weekend.
While Biden regularly receives Communion in his home dioceses in Washington and Delaware, it was significant that he also received Communion in Rome. The pope technically is the bishop of Rome, and while he delegates day-to-day administration to his vicar, St. Patrick’s parish is technically in the pope’s archdiocese. As such, Biden received Communion in the pope’s archdiocese.
About 30 people attended the Mass, and security guards ringed the aisles. The Bidens sat in the last row that had been roped off as “Reserved” and entered quietly, just after Mass had begun.
The Rev. Joe Ciccone, the vice rector of St. Patrick’s and a member of the Paulist order, was the main celebrant and was joined by the parish rector, the Rev. Steven Petroff, and a third priest. The Associated Press attended the service.
Ciccone’s homily was a meditation on love that he said he had composed days ago, before he knew the Bidens would be attending. He said it was an honor to have them in the parish, and that Biden’s position on abortion and whether to administer Communion was not an issue for him or the parish.
“Communion is what brings us together in the Lord. None of us are pure and perfect. We struggle through life. We’re all saints and sinners,” Ciccone told The Associated Press after the service.
“And when you’re a public figure you have to make certain decisions, especially in a democracy, on behalf of more than just your own personal feelings,” he added.
No special announcement was made at the start of Mass about the Bidens’ presence though, at the end, Petroff noted that they were in the church. He welcomed them, thanked them for coming and offered prayers “for the important work” they do. A round of applause broke out in the pews.
Both Bidens wore facemasks throughout the service and embraced during the sign of peace. The president tucked American money into the collection basket when an usher came to his pew.
The final hymn, to which the priests and then the Bidens exited, was “Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.”
The president’s support for abortion rights has put him at odds with many U.S. bishops, some of whom have suggested he should be denied Communion. American bishops are due to hold their annual fall conference in mid-November, and will find themselves debating a possible rebuke of a U.S. president.
Several conservative U.S. bishops expressed dismay about the pope’s reported words to Biden. Bishop Joseph Strickland, of Tyler, Texas, retweeted a blistering blog post by conservative Cardinal Raymond Burke that strongly reaffirmed that Catholic politicians who support abortion rights cannot receive the sacrament.
“Let us pray for the repentance of all who support the murder of the unborn,” Strickland wrote.
Petroff, the parish rector who actually gave Biden the Eucharist, said he had never denied the sacrament to anyone.
“First of all, I don’t know what is going on inside anyone’s mind when they come to receive the Eucharist,” he told AP. “And secondly, I am not the Eucharist police. The Eucharist, as Pope Francis and many popes have said, is medicine for those who need it.”
Biden told reporters on Friday that abortion did not come up in his 75-minute meeting with Francis at the Vatican. “We just talked about the fact he was happy that I was a good Catholic and I should keep receiving Communion,” Biden said.
The Vatican spokesman declined to comment on Biden’s remarks about Communion, noting that the Vatican doesn’t comment on the pope’s private conversations beyond what is written in the official communique, which made no mention of the issue.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement after the Vatican meeting that didn’t address Biden’s remark about Communion. Instead, the statement suggested that the president would not be singled out in any document emerging from the bishops’ meeting next month.
The document “is intended to speak to the beauty of meeting Jesus Christ in the Eucharist and is addressed to all Catholics,” the statement said.
Francis has stressed that he will not reject political leaders who support abortion rights, though Catholic policy allows individual bishops to choose whether to prevent people from taking Communion. When asked recently whether he would refuse the sacrament to Biden, Francis did not give a “yes” or “no” answer but said bishops should be pastors, not politicians.
Associated Press writers Zeke Miller and Trisha Thomas contributed to this report.