Vatican City, 8 June 2013 (VIS) – The official state visit of the President of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano, to Pope Francis “once again confirms—even after troubled and painful events—the normalcy and excellence of relations between Italy and the Holy See”. The dialogue between the two “has the good of the Italian people as its principle goal and has its historically unique role in Europe and the world as its ideal backdrop”.

Those were the words of the Bishop of Rome this morning on receiving for the first time in his pontificate the representative of Italy’s highest institution. He thanked the president, as well as all the entire Italian population, for the warm welcome that they have given him, saying that they have made him feel “at home again”. At the same time the pontiff expressed the wish that Italy might always be “a welcoming home for all”.

President Napolitano, the first head of state to officially visit Pope Francis, arrived in the Vatican shortly before 11:00am, accompanied by the Italian minister of Foreign Affairs, Emma Bonino, and Italy’s ambassador to the Holy See, Francesco Maria Greco. Upon arriving he was greeted by the Prefect of the Papal Household, Archbishop Georg Ganswein, and an honour guard of the Swiss Guard in the San Damaso Courtyard. After a private conversation with the Pope in the Sala del Tronetto (“little throne room”) of the Vatican Apostolic Palace, they moved to the Library where they both delivered speeches.

The Pope noted that, after the conciliation and the inclusion of the Lateran Pacts in the Italian Constitution and further, in a new light after the Second Vatican Council and the revision of the Treaty, relations between Italy and the Holy See have developed well. “In Italy,” he added, “the collaboration between State and Church, always focused on the interest of the people and of society, is carried out in the daily relationship between civil agencies and those of the Catholic community, represented by the Bishops and their offices, and in a very particular way, by the Bishop of Rome. Thus, even this first visit of the President to the Pope can be effectively expressed with the image of the two hills, the Quirinal and the Vatican, that look upon one another with esteem and fondness.”

The Pope then observed that 2013 marks the 1700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan, a symbol for many of the first affirmation of the principle of religious freedom, noting that, a century ago, the commemoration of the Edict of Milan represented “a stage in the historical process that favoured the awareness and the contribution of Catholics in the construction of Italian society. … In today’s world, religious freedom is more often asserted than accomplished. … The serious outrages inflicted on this primary right are a source of serious concern.”

“Against every attack, the unanimous reaction of the world’s countries must be seen reaffirming the inviolable dignity of the human person. It is the duty of all to defend religious freedom and to promote it for all. In sharing the protection of this moral good is also found a guarantee of the growth and development of the entire community.” Continuing, he mentioned the “profound and persistent” world crisis, which also affects Italy, “emphasizing the economic and social problems, which weigh especially upon the weakest part of society”. He noted some particularly troubling phenomena such as “the weakening of family and social ties, the decreasing population, the prevalence of mentalities favouring profit over work, and the insufficient attention paid to younger generations and their formation”.

“In this difficult context, which certainly is not easy, it is essential to guarantee and to develop the overall system of the democratic institutions to which Italian Catholics have decisively, loyally, and creatively contributed in recent decades. In a time of crisis such as this one it is, therefore, urgent that a new consideration of political commitment, above all among young persons, might arise and that believers and non-believers together might collaborate in promoting a society in which injustice can be overcome and every person can be welcomed and can contribute to the common good. … The distance between the letter and the spirit of laws and democratic institutions is always to be recognized and we need the commitment of all involved to bridge it every time again. We Catholics also have the duty to always strive more along the serious journey of spiritual conversion so that we might every day draw closer to the Gospel, which compels us to concretely and effectively serve persons and society.”

The Pope ended his discourse repeating that “what faith assures us of is true even in the civil sphere: we must never lose hope. How many examples of this have our parents and grandparents given us, facing the hardships of their times with great courage and spirit of sacrifice. On various occasions, Benedict XVI repeated that the current crisis should be an opportunity for the fraternal renewal of human relationships. Even the Italian people, drawing confidently and creatively from their rich Christian tradition and from the examples of their patron saints, Francis of Assisi and Catherine of Siena, … can and must overcome every division and grow in justice and peace, continuing thus to play their unique role in the European context and in the family of nations, and working to create a culture of encounter.”

After the addresses, the head of the Italian State met with Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, S.D.B., secretary of State, and with the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See. Before leaving, he went to the Vatican Basilica where he visited the Chapel of the Pieta.