Pope Benedict XVI hosted US President George W. Bush at the Vatican
The warmth of the Holy Father's reception for the American leader, and the enthusiasm that Bush showed during the meeting, prompted several Italian journalists to question whether the American president might be considering a personal commitment to the Catholic faith.
Breaking with the usual Vatican protocol, the Pope met President Bush in the Tower of St. John, rather than in the apostolic palace. After their private conversation, the two men walked together through the Vatican gardens, visiting the Lourdes grotto there.
The Vatican announced that the unusual reception was arranged "to respond to the cordiality of the welcome received by the Supreme Pontiff during his recent visit to the United States of America." In April the Pope had been clearly surprised and delighted by the warmth of his reception at the White House.
An official statement released by the Vatican after the Friday meeting indicated that the Pope's conversation with President Bush touched upon their shared "commitment in defense of fundamental moral values." They also spoke about international concerns including the tensions in the Middle East, the food crisis, and global poverty.
For reporters covering the presidential visit, however, the main focus of attention was not the policy discussion between the Pope and the President, but their personal relationship. President Bush-- who was probably meeting the Pope for the last time before leaving office in January 2009-- has spoken openly about his admiration for Pope Benedict . Reporters in Rome have openly questioned whether the American leader will follow the example of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was received into the Catholic Church shortly after he left office.
Neither the Vatican nor the White House has encouraged this speculation. President Bush is a committed Evangelical Protestant, for whom a move toward Catholicism would be a dramatic step. On the other hand his brother, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, is convert to the Catholic faith.
The President addressed the Pontiff as "your eminence"-- improper protocol, since that title is used for cardinals, while the Pope is properly addressed as "your holiness." But in an earlier meeting with Pope Benedict just over one year ago, President Bush had addressed the Pontiff simply as "sir."
Some Vatican officials had suggested that Bush might join Pope Benedict in prayer at the Vatican's Lourdes grotto, just as the two men had prayed together at the White House in April. But if they prayed together again during this meeting, they did so privately. At the grotto the Pope and the President sat together for a short performance by the Sistine Chapel Choir.
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