In the News 2014

Obama Goes to Rome Hoping to Tap Some of Pope Francis’ Popularity

Does being around the most popular person on the planet make you popular, too? Apparently that’s the hope. Judging by the way the world’s elite are flocking to Vatican City, you might think Pope Francis is sprinkling magic pixie dust, not holy water.

On Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama will take his turn visiting the popular pontiff.  Obama and an entourage of around 700 staffers, security folks and the White House traveling press corps, will descend on Rome for what may not be much more than a high-level photo op. While in Rome, the president will have a quick meet and greet with Italy’s ceremonial President Giorgio Napolitano, and he’s taking an exclusive private tour of the Coliseum. (Obama already met Italy’s new prime minister Matteo Renzi in The Netherlands at the Nuclear Security Summit earlier this week.)

The bilateral with the pope and whatever feel-good message comes out of it is the presumed purpose of Obama’s trip to Rome, which is part of a European tour. The two have a lot in common, not least of all the sheer number of magazine covers they have both graced, including Rolling Stone, Time, Forbes and The Advocate.  They are also champions of social justice and have worked tirelessly for the poor, especially in their early careers.

Their differences, though, are far more striking, which makes their meeting tricky.  Obama and Francis do not agree on a vast number of issues, including reproductive rights, gay marriage, women’s equality, or how best to help find peace in the world’s troubled regions. Pope Francis was able to draw hundreds of thousands to take part in a national day of peace for Syria last September, which was seen at the time as a direct response to threats by the United States to use force against Damascus. “May the noise of weapons cease!” Francis told the crowds gathered in St. Peter’s Square. “War always marks the failure of peace, it is always a defeat for humanity.”

But with the pope enjoying an approval rating hovering around 88 percent in the United States, according to a CNN poll, it could prove well worth it for the president, whose own approval rating is just half that,  at 44 percent according to the most recent Gallup poll, especially if Francis Fever is contagious.

“It is just a photo op,” warns Jon O’Brien of Catholics for Choice, “first and foremost for a president who has been sagging in his popularity standing with someone who is as immensely popular with Catholics and non-Catholics around the world.”

Obama is not alone in making his pilgrimage to Rome. Since taking over the helm of the Holy See in March 2013, the pope has had a steady string of high-level Vatican-bound visitors. Vladimir Putin paid a call last November, during which he invited Francis to visit Russia.  The two met for 30 minutes and reportedly discussed what Russia might do to help stem the bloodbath in Syria, then posed for photos. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a similar social call in early December, presenting the pope with the curious gift of his father’s history book on the Spanish Inquisition, again in front of the cameras. His visit also included a reciprocal invitation that the pope plans to follow up on in late May.

The Queen of England is scheduled to visit Francis next week in what will also be a highly anticipated grand opportunity for the Vatican photo pool.

Francis is, of course, the recipient of a dizzying number of invitations. U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner invited him to address Congress, which is predictable. But then there’s the mayor of Green Bay who is so serious about luring Francis to Wisconsin that he has created a website with an online petition dedicated to the cause.

According to the Vatican press office, the pope hosts prime ministers, diplomats and special guests in private audiences several times a week.  His predecessors kept a busy schedule, too, but requests for time with Francis are so numerous the Vatican has added additional staff to accommodate all the correspondence, which includes thousands of letters and post cards the pope receives every day.

The fan mail increased drastically when Francis started picking up the phone to call  several people who sent him their numbers last summer. His weekly Wednesday audiences and Sunday blessings have drawn massive crowds of pilgrims and celebrities alike. Russell Crowe even attended his Wednesday audience last week, hoping to get the pontiff to endorse his biblical movie “Noah.”

Alas for Crowe, no papal endorsement and no pixie dust came his way, but a whole lot of publicity did, and in Hollywood that’s benediction enough.

This piece was originally published by The Daily Beast.

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