WASHINGTON (RNS) — When John Kerry, the White House’s special envoy on climate change, visited Pope Francis earlier this month, the moment garnered popular attention mostly for an image that emerged from the meeting: a pontiff known for appearing stone-faced in meetings with foreign leaders (not least former President Donald Trump) grasping Kerry’s outstretched hand, grinning from ear to ear.

According to Ken Hackett, former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, the real surprise was that the meeting happened at all.

“That’s unique,” said Hackett, who served in Rome under President Barack Obama’s administration, from August 2013 to January 2017. “Generally, non-heads of state do not meet with the Holy Father for pragmatic reasons. The Holy Father can’t meet with every minister of the interior or foreign

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