The Only Popes To Ever Visit The White House

A lot of world leaders find time to make a stop at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The leaders of some countries, like Canada and Mexico, have visited the White House dozens of times since the U.S. State Department's Office of the Historian started keeping track in 1874. But there are some countries with just a handful of visits, among them the world's tiniest country, Vatican City, and its leader, the pope.

In all, according to White House History, a supreme pontiff leading the Catholic Church has visited the White House only three times. Two of those visits occurred when a Democrat held the office of president, and once while a Republican was in the oval office. Those visits are among the 10 times that a pope has visited the United States, according to the National Archives.

That first historic visit to the White House happened more than four decades ago, back in 1979. It was a big deal, with Time magazine calling it "a happening that would have been inconceivable in U.S. politics just two decades ago," according to Politico.

First papal visit to the White House

President Jimmy Carter was the first U.S. president to welcome a pope into the White House, on October 6, 1979. He did so by greeting Polish-born Pope John Paul II with the words "Niech bedzie bog Pochwalony," Polish for "May God be praised." The pope responded in English, "It gives me great joy to be the first pope in history to come to the capital of this nation, and I thank almighty God for this blessing," according to Politico.

From the Truman Balcony, the pope delivered a papal blessing to a crowd of about 6,000 people gathered on the South Lawn and later shook hands with people in the crowd, according to White House History. A presidential biographer noted that Pope John Paul II shared a common agenda with the president: human rights, according to Politico. The following year, President Carter visited Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, where Carter reaffirmed his position on human rights by saying that protecting them is the first duty of governments, according to The Washington Post.

President Bush welcomes the pope

It would be nearly 30 years, April 16, 2008, before another pope would set foot in the White House, and this pope came on his 81st birthday. The president at the time, George W. Bush, and his wife, Laura, met Pope Benedict XVI at Andrews Air Force Base, marking the first time the president had left the White House to greet a foreign dignitary, according to ABC News.

The pope was greeted by a singer performing "The Lord's Prayer" on the South Lawn before about 13,500 guests, according to the White House Historical Association. The pope and President Bush met privately behind closed doors, but there was also time for levity. The crowd at Edwards Air Force Base sang "Happy Birthday" to the pope, according to ABC News. The president surprised Pope Benedict XVI with a birthday cake, according to the White House Historical Association. The pope also visited the United Nations during his visit, where he spoke about human rights.

Pope Francis visits the White House

The most recent of the three papal visits to the White House came on September 23, 2015, according to White House History. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama hosted Pope Francis at the presidential residence. A crowd of about 10,000 people gathered on the South Lawn to see the pope, according to ABC News. In addition to addressing the crowd and meeting privately with President Obama, the pope exchanged gifts with the president. President Obama presented Pope Francis with a metal sculpture of a dove, taken from metal from the Statue of Liberty, while Pope Francis honored President Obama with a bronze medallion depicting the World Meeting of Families, a gathering of the Catholic Church hosted that year in Philadelphia and which was the original reason for the pope's visit, according to White House History.

President Joe Biden, a Catholic, met with Pope Francis in 2021 at the Vatican. When a pope will visit the White House next has yet to be announced.