He may be an ex-communist and avowed atheist but Italy’s President Giorgio Napolitano says becoming friends with Pope Benedict XVI has been a highlight of his six years as the Italian head of state.
“I do not hesitate to confess that one of the loveliest elements that has marked my experience has been, precisely, my relationship with Benedict XVI,” he told the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano in a July 11 interview.
President Napolitano has been in office since 2006, a year after the election of Pope Benedict XVI. The two men are of similar age, with the Italian president being only two years older than the 85-year-old pontiff.
On Wednesday of this week, the Pope and president spent much of the day together at the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, about 15 miles south of Rome. There they co-hosted a concert by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, led by conductor Daniel Barenboim, to mark St. Benedict’s Day. After the musical performance the two men dined together.
It is such personal encounters, said President Napolitano, that he is “profoundly grateful for” because they “plucked at our human heart strings.”
“Today, for example, we have spent a moment together characterized, precisely, by so much simple humanity,” he said towards end of the evening. “We strolled together, we spoke to each other like people who have a relationship of forthright friendship, with all the respect that I have for him and for his most lofty ministry, for his most exalted mission.”
The Italian president’s role in the government is usually one that is largely ceremonial, but during Europe’s recent economic crisis President Napolitano has played a direct role in upholding Italy’s constitution and government.
In November 2011, he decided to appoint former European Union commissioner Mario Monti as Italian prime minister after the fall of Silvio Berlusconi’s administration. His executive actions led the New York Times to dub him “King George.”
“Part of the reason why we feel close is because we are both called to govern complex situations,” the president said, analyzing his friendship with Pope Benedict.
“The Pope, of course, in addition to being a ‘head of State’ is also and above all the head of the universal Church,” but President Napolitano observed that he finds himself “at the helm of the institutions of the Italian Republic in an extraordinarily difficult period.”
One particular highlight that the president said he “will always cherish” as a “legacy” of his presidency was Pope Benedict’s 2011 address to the Italian people to mark the 150th anniversary of country’s unification.
The president said he expected a “cordial and formal” speech but, instead, he received a “demanding” address from the Pope that gave an overview of Italian history.
“This really shows that in Italy the state and the church, the people of the Republic and the people of the Church, are very deeply and closely united,” the president said.