WASHINGTON - President Bush said yesterday he and his wife Laura will lead a five-member delegation to the funeral of Pope John Paul II, making him the first president to attend a papal funeral.
"It is, you know, my great honor, on behalf of our country, to express our gratitude to the Almighty for such a man. And, of course, we look forward to the majesty of celebrating such a significant human life," said Mr. Bush, who met with the Pope three times and gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Until President Ronald Reagan established diplomatic relations in 1984 with the Vatican, then under the leadership of Pope John Paul II, the United States did not recognize it as a separate nation and presidents did not attend papal funerals.
When Lyndon Johnson was vice president, he attended the funeral of Pope John XXIII in June, 1963.
During President Jimmy Carter's presidency, Paul VI died Aug. 6, 1978, and John Paul I died Sept. 28, 1978. Mr. Carter sent his mother to one funeral and his wife to the other
Mr. Bush said the Pope showed that "one man can make a difference in people's lives." He referred to the deceased Pontiff as "a courageous person," a "moral person" and a "Godly person."
Mr. Bush said that the Pope had a huge influence on people in America and around the world. "He spoke to the poor. He spoke to morality."
While Mr. Bush and John Paul II opposed abortion, they were at opposite ends on the war in Iraq and the death penalty, which the Pope opposed and which Mr. Bush supports.
Mr. Bush referred obliquely to the Pope's opposition to the war.
"Of course, he was a man of peace. And he didn't like - he didn't like war. And I fully understood that. And I appreciated the conversations I had with the Holy Father on the subject," he said.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the Bushes and three others in the official party, to be announced today, will fly to Rome tomorrow.
Mr. McClellan said the delegation would be small because leaders are expected from every country, including Russia, which never provided what John Paul II considered the right conditions for him to visit.
A number of key administration officials are Catholics, including Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson, who Mr Bush appointed U.S. ambassador to the Vatican in 2001. The Pope, who met with Mr. Nicholson after his appointment, noted that he represented his country at a time of immense sadness, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Mr. Nicholson later wrote a book about the history of the relationship between the United States and the Vatican. He recalled, "I met the Pope at Castel Gandolfo for about twenty minutes. After we had spoken at length and prayed together, the Pope told me that he believed the events of September 11 were truly an attack, not only on the United States, but on 'the entire human race,' and that we were justified in taking defensive action.
"He asked me only to make an appeal to President Bush on his behalf, that the United States would hold themselves to the highest standards of justice for which our country is known. It was at this meeting that the foundations were laid for the support of the Holy See for our campaign against terrorism. It is extraordinary that the Pope and the church wished to help us, and likewise worth noticing that this support continues today."
But while Mr. Nicholson was at the Vatican, which he left early this year, he frequently had to defend Mr. Bush's Iraq policies.
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