ROME — U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, an avid defender of abortion rights, met privately with Pope Francis on Wednesday and received communion from a priest during a papal Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, according to an attendee.
Ms. Pelosi, who has denounced the Supreme Court’s decision to strip constitutional protections for abortion as “outrageous and heart-wrenching,” sat in a V.I.P. diplomatic section of the basilica and received a blessing from Francis in private before the morning Mass celebrating the feasts of St. Peter and St. Paul. She later lined up to receive communion from a priest with the rest of the congregants.
The Vatican did not return a request for confirmation about the meeting, but released a photo of Ms. Pelosi and her husband, Paul Pelosi, greeting Francis on the side of the basilica.
Pope Francis has consistently called abortion evil and murderous, and upheld the church’s absolute opposition to it, and during the Mass on Wednesday, he said church leaders must “continue to care for human life.” But Francis has also vigorously opposed the politicization of church sacraments, and told newly consecrated archbishops upon whom he bestowed the woolen pallium stole on Wednesday to be inclusive and to not “remain pinned to some of our fruitless debates.”
He added, “So many times we become a church with open doors, but only to send people away, to condemn them.”
Earlier in the day, Francis issued a new apostolic letter about church liturgy, in which he emphasized that celebrating Mass belongs to “the totality of the faithful united in Christ.”
“The liturgy does not say ‘I’ but ‘we,’” Francis wrote, “and any limitation on the breadth of this ‘we’ is always demonic.”
Francis has said in the past that “I have never refused the Eucharist to anyone,” and has preached that communion “is not the reward of saints, but the bread of sinners.” The Vatican has urged conservative bishops in the United States not to reduce the sacrament to a political issue after several floated the idea last year of denying communion to President Biden and other Catholic leaders supportive of abortion rights. Ms. Pelosi’s hometown priest, the conservative Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, had said he would deny her the sacrament until she stops publicly supporting abortion rights.
The divide between such conservative American bishops and Pope Francis, who has explicitly identified the United States as the source of opposition to his pontificate, have amounted to a rare open rift in the church. Francis’ top doctrinal official, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, last year wrote a letter to the American bishops warning them that moving ahead on an effort to deny communion to Catholic supporters of abortion rights could “become a source of discord rather than unity within the episcopate and the larger church in the United States.”
Well before Ms. Pelosi’s visit on Wednesday, Francis had made it clear through the symbolism favored by the Vatican that he prefers an inclusive approach.
In a visit to Rome in October, President Biden the first Roman Catholic to occupy the Oval Office in 60 years, received communion at St. Patrick’s Church in Rome after announcing that Pope Francis had told him during their long private meeting at the Vatican that he should continue taking the sacrament. The Vatican declined to comment at the time.
On Tuesday night, at a reception with hot dogs and hamburgers ahead of Independence Day at the residence of the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, Ms. Pelosi gave the evening’s toast before a crowd of hundreds, including ambassadors and priests, and former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican Callista Gingrich and her husband, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Ms. Pelosi spoke about the importance of faith and called Mr. Biden a man of deep faith.
“Faith is an important gift, not everyone has it but it is the path to so many other things,” she said.
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On Wednesday, Ms. Pelosi, who is also visiting with Italian leaders during her time in Rome, followed the Mass with a visit to the Sant’Egidio Community, a Catholic charity that Francis admires for its work with refugees and the poor.
Ms. Pelosi met with refugees there and, at an event marking a $25,000 gift from the State Department to the charity, mentioned her attendance at the Mass with Francis and church leaders and spoke about the importance of preaching the Gospel through actions.
“We had the pleasure of attending Mass this morning with His Holiness and many, many, many leaders of the church,” Ms. Pelosi said. “In the spirit of St. Francis, which is the name of His Holiness and my city of San Francisco, I thank you for preaching the Gospel, sometimes using words.”