When Presidents Met Popes

I’ve started posting daily trivia questions on the Catholic chat channel at work, as a way of making the days pass a little quicker. This, of course, is just in time for me to leave for another job, but that might be just as well: I’m running a little dry on interesting trivia.

In any case, today’s question was “Who was the first sitting US President to meet with the Pope?” and I threw in a bonus: “Who was the first former US President to meet the Pope?”

The answer to the first question wasn’t really that surprising in retrospect: Woodrow Wilson, who met with Pope Benedict XV while he was in Europe for the post-war peace talks (not that Wilson really cared much what the Pope had to say, but that’s another story).

The answer to the second rather surprised me.

Give up?

It was either Martin Van Buren or Millard Fillmore.

Both former presidents were in Europe in 1855, and both met with Pope Pius IX that year. I haven’t yet been able to learn who actually saw him first, so I’ll call it a tie. Still, would not have called that (albeit partly because those two titans of statecraft are very rarely the answer to any trivia questions).

Fillmore, in fact, nearly backed out of his meeting when he learned he would have to kneel and kiss the Pope’s ring. Pius compromised with him by remaining seated for the whole time so that it wouldn’t come up. The successor of St. Peter cannot demand obeisance of the great Millard Fillmore!

(I kid Fillmore. To be fair, he was still an active politician, and if news had gotten back to the states of his kissing the Pope’s ring, that would have been the end of his career. In fact, he ran for President the very next year…on the Know-Nothing ticket, ironically enough. He lose to that peerless statesman, James Buchanan).

Personally, when I started looking into the question, my own guess for the answer was Ulysses S. Grant, who went on a world tour after his two terms were up and met most of the world leaders of the day (including, if I remember right, helping to broker a peace treaty between Japan and China, but that’s another story). He did indeed meet with Pope Leo XIII, who made a point of thanking him for taking time before each battle specifically to allow his Catholic soldiers to receive Confession. Grant was surprised to find that he knew about that.

Lots of interesting little corners of history, when you take the time to look at them.

4 thoughts on “When Presidents Met Popes

  1. “…very rarely the answer to any trivia questions…” If you expect me to resist that challenge, you little know your man. Ahem:

    “Who was the first native-born citizen of the Union to become its president?”

    “Who was the only U.S. president not descended from King Edward III of England?”

    “What U.S. president only ever received electors from one state?” (Bonus points if you know which state Fillmore carried in 1856.)

    “Who was the first person to win elections both for president and for vice-president?” (No, not John Adams; he, like Jefferson and Burr after him, became vice-president by coming in second in a presidential election, not by winning a vice-presidential one.)

    Liked by 1 person

      • Indeed. Ironic, isn’t it? The one time the Know-Nothing Party carried a state, and it was the famously Catholic colony voting for possibly the first U.S. president to meet the Pope. I wonder whether that should tell us something…

        Anyway, let’s see if I can toss you a chestnut you haven’t just been reading up on. As I (implicitly) mentioned, Martin Van Buren was the first person to win both a presidential and a vice-presidential election; who was the first person to come in second in one of each? (Or, for that matter, the first – and only, unless something improbable happened last year while I was too disgusted to notice – to place third both ways?)

        Like

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