Friday, 13 June 2008

Bush treated to warm greeting at Vatican

ROME - Pope Benedict XVI took President Bush on a rare stroll through the lush grounds of the Vatican Gardens on Friday, stopping at a grotto where the pontiff prays daily.

"Your Holiness, you're looking good," Bush told the pope shortly after arriving at the Vatican, launching the leaders' third visit together.

Normally, VIPS are received in the pope's library in the Apostolic Palace. That's where Bush had his first meeting with Benedict in June 2007.

But in a gesture of appreciation for the hearty welcome Bush gave him in Washington in April, Benedict welcomed the president and first lady Laura Bush near St. John's Tower in the lush Vatican Gardens.

The presidential motorcade had bounded through downtown Rome, with people leaning out balconies and popping out of their businesses to watch.

Bush's limousine pulled into St. Peter's Square and continued on to St. John's Tower, where he and Mrs. Bush were greeted by the pope.

On a brief tour, Benedict and Bush peered out from a tower balcony, and the president seemed awed by what he saw. The pope pointed out St. Peter's dome as he showed Bush the view. "This is fantastic up here," Bush said. "Thank you so much for showing me this."

White House press secretary Dana Perino said the two leaders have the kind of relationship that allows them to speak frankly. They discussed such issues as human rights, HIV and AIDS in Africa, and poverty around the world, she said.

After their private meeting ended, Bush and Benedict posed for official photographs and exchanged gifts. The president gave the pontiff a photograph of the two walking along the White House colonnade on their way to the Oval Office in April. The picture was presented in a sterling silver frame with an engraved presidential seal. Benedict gave Bush a framed photograph and four volumes on St. Peter's Basilica. "Perhaps you'll have some time to read it," he told Bush, whose presidency ends in January.

Members of the presidential entourage received rosaries and medals of the pontificate. Bush and the pope then strolled through the gardens to see the Lourdes Grotto, which was donated to Pope Leo XIII at the turn of the century by French Catholics. Bush and Benedict sat in wooden patio-style chairs admiring the grotto as Mrs. Bush rejoined them.

Sirens in the city and the whirring of a helicopter overheard broke the silence in the placid scene — as did noisy parrots that flew right over the heads of the Bushes and the pontiff. Those sounds were soon drowned out by the performance of a young boys' choir. Bush and the first lady personally thanked the beaming children when they finished singing.

Security was tight throughout Bush's two-day stay in Rome. The president spent about an hour at the Vatican. As he left, two helicopters tracked his motorcade as it sped along a freeway on its way to the airport.

A statement by the Vatican after Bush's visit said that the pope had "renewed his gratitude for the warm and special reception he received in the United States of America and at the White House in April, and for the commitment in defense of the fundamental moral values." The two leaders talked about relations between the U.S. and Europe, globalization, the world food crisis and international trade, among other topics, the Vatican said.

Bush and Benedict share much common ground, particularly in opposing abortion, gay marriage and embryonic stem cell research. But they disagree on other issues, including the war in Iraq, the death penalty and the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. In Washington and New York, Benedict sounded themes about truth trumping moral relativism, rich nations' responsibility to care for poor ones, and Catholics' call to live out their faith.

Bush, after his visit to the Vatican, flew to France where he was giving a speech in Paris to highlight a rebound in trans-Atlantic relations, which were fractured over the war in Iraq. He is also commemorating the 60th anniversary of the start of the Marshall Plan, the massive U.S. aid program to rebuild Europe after World War II.


Vatican Statement on Bush Meeting

VATICAN CITY, JUNE 13, 2008 - Here is a translation of the communiqué released today by the Vatican press office after U.S. President George Bush's visit to Benedict XVI.

* * *

This morning, the president of the United States, George W. Bush, was received in audience by Benedict XVI.

To respond to the cordiality of the welcome offered the Pontiff during his recent visit to the United States of America, the audience was carried out according to a unique protocol. The Holy Father welcomed the president, accompanied by his wife, Laura, and the ambassador to the Holy See, Mary Ann Glendon, in the entrance of St. John's Tower in the Vatican Gardens.

Later, His Holiness and the president of the United States went up to the study on the upper level for a private meeting; meanwhile Laura and Ambassador Glendon waited with Archbishop James Michael Harvey, prefect of the pontifical household. Afterward, the cardinal secretary of state, Tarcisio Bertone, arrived.

During the cordial dialogue, the Holy Father above all renewed to the president his gratitude for the warm and special welcome received in the United States and the White House during his visit last April, and for the commitment in defense of fundamental values. Then they spoke of principal topics of international politics: relations between the United States and Europe, the Middle East and the commitment for peace in the Holy Land, globalization, the food crisis and international commerce, and the application of the Millennium Development Goals.

At the end of the meeting, after an interchange of gifts, Benedict XVI and President Bush took a brief walk through Vatican Gardens until reaching the grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, where the president's wife and entourage joined them. The choir of the Sistine Chapel interpreted two motets.