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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

Papal Visits to the White House

President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter welcome Pope John Paul II into the White House on October 6, 1979.

White House Historical Association

Papal visits to the White House have been rare—with Pope Francis' recent visit, just three popes in history have visited 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. This most recent visit provides an opportunity to look back at the pontiffs who have visited the President’s House.

On October 6, 1979, Pope John Paul II arrived in an open-topped limousine, driving through the Northwest gate as he waved to onlookers on Pennsylvania Avenue. President Jimmy Carter, First Lady Rosalynn Carter and Vice President and Mrs. Mondale greeted the pope under the red-carpeted North Portico. The pontiff kissed 11 year-old Amy Carter.

Carter held a private meeting with Pope John Paul in the Oval office for an hour and then emerged before 6,000 people gathered on the South Lawn. “Niech bedzie bog Pochwalony” (May God be praised,) said Carter in Polish. The pontiff responded, “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.”

The president and pope ascended the South stairs to the Blue Room and then on to the Second Floor. They came out to wave on the Truman Balcony and, after delivering a papal blessing, the pope returned to the South Lawn to mingle and to shake hands with the crowd for 20 minutes. The pope left the White House about 5:00 p.m.

President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush greet Pope Benedict XVI upon his arrival at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on April 15, 2008.

The National Archives

The second pope to visit the White House was Pope Benedict XVI on April 16, 2008, which also happened to be the pontiff’s 81st birthday. President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush greeted the pope at Andrews Air Force Base, a departure from the tradition of the president and his family greeting official guests for the first time at the White House.

At the arrival ceremony on the South Lawn, soprano Kathleen Battle sang a version of “The Lord’s Prayer” before about 13,500 guests. The pope received a 21-gun salute and the U.S. Marine Band played “Inno e Marcia Pontificale” (the national anthem of the Holy See) and “The Star Spangled Banner.” Pope Benedict and President Bush both spoke briefly and then were accompanied by the First Lady as they walked up the steps to the balcony next to the Blue Room, where the pope spread his arms and received cheers.

Inside the Blue Room, the president surprised the pope with a birthday cake before they went into the Oval Office for a private meeting.

President Barack Obama and Pope Francis shake hands during the pontiff's arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House on September 23, 2015.

White House Historical Association

On September 23, 2015, Pope Francis became only the third pontiff in history to pay a visit to the White House. He arrived on September 22 at Andrews Air Force Base and was greeted by the President Barack Obama and First Family and Vice President Joe Biden and his family on the tarmac.

The official arrival ceremony for the pope was held on the morning of September 23, 2015, on the South Lawn of the White House. With a crowd of an estimated 11,000, Pope Francis and President Obama stood before an honor guard as a band played the United States national anthem and "Inno e Marcia Pontificale," the national anthem for the Holy See. The president and pontiff both made remarks covering topics such as immigration, Cuba-U.S. relations, religious tolerance, and climate change.

After the pope’s speech, President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama stopped with the pope on a balcony and waved to the crowd before heading inside. The president and pontiff then met privately for about 40 minutes in the Oval Office.

Gift exchanges are customary between U.S. officials and foreign dignitaries. The president presented his guest with a one-of-a-kind sculpture of an ascending dove made from metal taken from the Statue of Liberty, a 19th century key from the Maryland home of Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native-born American to become a saint, and wood which once grew in the White House garden. Pope Francis gave President Obama a bronze bas-relief of the medallion of the World Meeting of Families, the Catholic rally in Philadelphia that was the original reason for the papal visit to the U.S.