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Gerard O’ConnellJune 18, 2024
Pope Francis gives U.S. President Joe Biden a thumbs up during a private meeting on the margins of the Group of Seven summit in Borgo Egnazia, in Italy's southern Puglia region, June 14, 2024. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Pope Francis’ participation at the G7 summit in Apulia, Italy, was not only historic but revealed the high moral standing that the first Latin American pope has on the global stage and among some of the world’s leading heads of state and government.

Francis was the first pope invited to participate in this high-level intergovernmental forum, founded in 1975, which brings together Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. The European Union also participates in the G7, which, the group says, “is united by common values and plays an important role on the international arena in upholding freedom, democracy and human rights.”

Italy holds the rotating presidency of the G7 this year, and the country’s first woman prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, invited Pope Francis to take part in the meeting. She also invited the heads of state of several non-member countries as well as the presidents of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

After arriving on the afternoon of June 14, Francis began the first of two series of scheduled bilateral meetings. The heads of state of eight countries—Algeria, Brazil, India, Kenya, France, Turkey, Ukraine and the United States— had requested private meetings with the pope as had the head of the I.M.F. No pope has ever had so many high-level bilateral meetings, each lasting about 20 minutes, in one day. In addition to the bilateral meetings, the pope participated in the working session of the G7, where he gave the keynote address on artificial intelligence.

Francis was welcomed with warm applause by the heads of state when he entered in a wheelchair the Arena Hall where the working session was held. He greeted each of the leaders present with broad smiles and sometimes brief remarks before taking his seat at the table.

Pope Francis knew many of the heads of state from private meetings at the Vatican or visits to their home countries. The body language revealed a warmth of relations between the leaders and great affection for the first pope from the Global South; encounters ranged from embraces and kisses with Argentina’s President Javier Milei, Brazil’s President Lula da Silva, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Jordan’s King Abdullah and Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to the forehead-to-forehead greeting of President Joe Biden and a warm handshake of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The pope began his address on artificial intelligence in a humorous tone, announcing that he had two texts, a longer and shorter version, which he held up for all to see, and with a big smile he said he would read the shorter one and deposit the longer for the record. He then spoke for 19 minutes with great passion about the fundamental need for ethics in this emerging field.

[Pope Francis tells G7: A.I., ‘an exciting and fearsome tool,’ needs urgent political action]

“Artificial intelligence is an exciting and fearsome tool,” he told these world leaders. Its advent “represents a true cognitive-industrial revolution, which will contribute to the creation of a new social system characterized by complex epochal transformations,” he said.

He emphasized the vital importance of human beings controlling this tool and said: “We would condemn humanity to a future without hope if we took away people’s ability to make decisions about themselves and their lives, by dooming them to depend on the choices of machines. We need to ensure and safeguard a space for proper human control over the choices made by artificial intelligence programs: human dignity itself depends on it.”

“In order for [artificial intelligence programs] to be instruments for building up the good and a better tomorrow, they must always be aimed at the good of every human being,” the pope said. “They must have an ethical ‘inspiration.’”

He concluded by emphasizing the importance of “healthy politics” to oversee the development of artificial intelligence, “so that we can look to our future with hope and confidence.”

The leaders warmly applauded Francis when he concluded his talk. He then remained to listen as the other world leaders contributed to a two-hour session behind closed doors. The G7’s concluding document supported the need for a code of conduct in the field of artificial intelligence.

The 87-year-old Latin American pope showed energy, good humor and clarity of mind throughout his more than nine hours of interaction with world leaders at the G7. His performance was all the more impressive when one considers that Francis began the day with an early morning audience with the president of Cape Verde, followed by a lively encounter with some 100 comedians from 14 countries. He then received the bishops of Equatorial Guinea from Central Africa before taking a helicopter at 11 a.m. for a 90-minute flight to Borgo Egnazia, the luxury holiday resort in southern Italy, for the 50th G7 summit.

Ahead of the summit, Francis told reporters he wanted to talk with world leaders about artificial intelligence but also peace. He is deeply concerned about the wars in Ukraine and Gaza and is determined to use the full power of his papal office to try to get world leaders to bring an end to these and other conflicts that have caused so much suffering worldwide.

In this context, one of his first bilateral meetings was with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whom he has received twice at the Vatican. Mr. Zelenskyy reported on X that he had briefed the pope “on the consequences of Russian aggression, its air terror, and the difficult energy situation” and spoke about “the Holy See’s role in establishing a just and lasting peace.”

He said he thanked Francis for “his spiritual closeness to our people” and “the humanitarian aid” that he sent and for the Holy See’s efforts “aimed at bringing peace closer” and working for the return of “Ukrainian children abducted by Russia.” He also thanked Francis for the Holy See’s participation in the peace summit in Switzerland. The pope sent Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the secretary of state, to the summit held this past weekend, and he reaffirmed the Holy See’s position in favor of the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Francis’ final bilateral meeting was with President Biden, and the wars in Ukraine and the Holy Land were at the center of the conversation. Francis first met then-Vice President Biden during his visit to the United States in 2015, and they met again at the Vatican in October 2021. Francis was keen to speak face-to-face with President Biden because of the role the United States, under its second Catholic president, is playing in Ukraine and Gaza.

While the Vatican has not revealed what the pope said during their private conversation, a statement from the White House said:

The leaders emphasized the urgent need for an immediate ceasefire and a hostage deal to get the hostages home and address the critical humanitarian crisis in Gaza. President Biden thanked Pope Francis for the Vatican’s work to address the humanitarian impacts of Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine, including his efforts to help return kidnapped Ukrainian children to their families. President Biden also reaffirmed his deep appreciation for the Pope’s tireless advocacy for the poor and those suffering from persecution, the effects of climate change, and conflict around the world.

Before his meeting with the U.S. president, Pope Francis spoke with King Abdullah of Jordan, who recently held a conference on delivering humanitarian aid to Gaza. The pope also conversed with the president of Algeria, Abdelmadjod Tebboune, whose country has pushed for a ceasefire in Gaza at the United Nations. He had an in-depth conversation with Turkey’s President Erdogan, who is playing an important role in both the war in Gaza and the war in Ukraine, and who has reached out to Francis by phone in recent months.

Francis also met with India’s Prime Minister Modi, who again invited him to visit the country, and with Brazil’s President Lula da Silva, with whom Francis has a very close relationship. India and Brazil, together with Russia, China and South Africa, make up the “BRICS” coalition of developing nations and could play an important role in brokering peace in Ukraine since both enjoy good relations with President Vladimir Putin. Russia had been a member of the G7 (then G8) since 1997 but was suspended from the forum after its annexation of Crimea in 2014.

After his meeting with Mr. Biden, Pope Francis boarded the helicopter back to the Vatican. In a post on X on June 17, the U.S. president paid tribute to the pope, saying: “His Holiness has devoted his life to tireless advocacy for the poor and those suffering from persecution, the effects of climate change, and conflict around the world. It was an honor to spend time with him this past week.”

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