Bill O’Reilly meets Pope Francis. How did that happen?

Kevin Clarke
America (Jesuit) Magazine

It’s the handshake that launched a thousand (or more) tweets. The timing of Bill O’Reilly’s encounter yesterday with Pope Francis could not have been scripted any better, coming just hours before the Fox News put an end its top-rated “The Factor,” which Mr. O’Reilly has hosted in various forms since 1996. Though the show’s ratings remain high, advertisers had been in general flight as court cases and allegations of sexual harassment related to the controversial TV host continued to surface.

But Mr. O’Reilly’s encounter with Pope Francis was the result of standard operating procedures, according to Joe Zwilling, the spokesperson for the Archdiocese of New York. He explained in an e-mail: “Cardinal Dolan regularly tries to assist people from the archdiocese who are visiting Rome. In this case, he wrote on behalf of Mr. O’Reilly and his sons back in February requesting tickets. In all cases, the final decision on such requests rests with the Vatican.”

According to Mr. Zwilling, New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan “regularly attempts to assist people, not just for tickets to the audience, but for someone looking to visit the scavi, or the Vatican museums, for instance.”

He added, “I only know about New York, but I would not be surprised if most bishops don’t do this. In fact, I would be surprised if they don’t.” He said the letter from Cardinal Dolan to Rome was sent in February, months before the latest controversy regarding Mr. Reilly’s history of sexual harassment heated up and merely “indicated the dates that Mr. O’Reilly and his family would be in Rome.”

Mr. O’Reilly, a Catholic, who last year challenged the pope’s views on immigration and promised to convince him of the need for reform, shook hands briefly with the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics at the Vatican.

But it’s unclear if Francis knew who Mr. O’Reilly was, and they appeared to exchange no conversation as Mr. O’Reilly joined VIPs in a suit and tie to greet the 80-year-old pontiff in the spring sunshine.

Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that Fox and Mr. O’Reilly paid five women, including former staffers and guests on his program, a total of $13 million to settle harassment claims.

Mr. O’Reilly’s picture was taken in the VIP line by a photographer from the official Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. He has been on vacation in Italy.

Thousands of pilgrims and tourists gather in St. Peter’s Square for the papal audience, which is open to the public every Wednesday.

Mr. O’Reilly’s access did not appear to come with any assistance from the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, and the head of the Vatican press office, Greg Burke, a former Fox correspondent, told RNS he did “not facilitate” Mr. O’Reilly’s visit.

The request is likely to have been cleared by the prefect of the papal household, Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, former personal secretary and friend of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

The pope has made compassion for migrants a hallmark of his papacy, and in a broadcast aired last year Mr. O’Reilly said he personally wanted to convince Francis that millions of Americans had been harmed by the immigration system.

The pope angered then-candidate Donald Trump during last year’s presidential campaign when he appeared to question Trump’s desire to build a border wall with Mexico.

“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” the pope said after a visit to Mexico. “This is not in the Gospel.”

In his message to the faithful on Wednesday, the pope referred to the resurrection of Jesus Christ at Easter, saying: “Even though we are all sinners, we too can go to the tomb, see the stone rolled away and realize that God has an unexpected future for each one of us.”

During the pope’s 2015 visit to the United States, he met Kim Davis, a Kentucky clerk who became a conservative hero for refusing to sign same-sex marriage certificates, though it was not clear he knew whom she was.

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