ROME – On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken enjoyed a private visit to the Sistine Chapel before sitting down to a closed-door meeting with Pope Francis as part of a broader tour of Europe.

Speaking to the journalists during a June 28 press conference alongside Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, Blinken spoke of his 40-minute meeting with Francis, saying, “let me just say on a personal level what an honor it was.”

The meeting, he said, “was very warm and extremely wide ranging. We covered a lot of ground, and I certainly don’t want to speak for His Holiness, but just speaking for myself, speaking for the United States, I was very gratified.”

Blinken praised what he said was the “strong leadership” shown by Pope Francis during the coronavirus pandemic and on issues such as climate change, the migrant and refugee crisis, “and more broadly, maybe most important of all, his leadership on the basic proposition that we have to stand for human dignity in everything we do to the best of our ability.”

“One of the luxuries of my job is that I don’t do domestic politics…And so I will simply say that it was truly a wonderful and memorable moment (that) I had the opportunity to speak to His Holiness and have such a warm and wide range conversation,” he said.

Asked for reaction to statements by Pope Francis earlier this year that COVID-19 vaccines were a duty and that denying the seriousness of COVID-19 was “suicidal,” Blinken said that he does not speak for the pope, but personally believes “in the importance of vaccinations” and would like to see people around the world get vaccinated “as quickly as possible.”

“Here is the reality that we are facing: as long as the virus is replicating somewhere it’s likely to be mutating, and as long as it is mutating there is the distinct possibility that it comes back and bites even those who have been vaccinated,” he said, stressing the need to “be ahead of this.”

“That’s why Italy and the United States are working so closely together, to make sure that we get vaccines out there,” he said.

Blinken was the first high-ranking official from President Joe Biden’s administration to meet with the pope.

He also met with other top Holy See officials, including the Vatican Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

In a statement following the 40-minute meeting, a Vatican spokesman said the conversation took place “in a cordial atmosphere,” and that Francis recalled his visit to the United States in 2015 and expressed his “affection and attention” for the people of the United States.

In two separate tweets sent after his visit to the Vatican, Blinken expressed gratitude for the meetings, saying “today I had the great pleasure of touring the Vatican, including the beautiful Sistine Chapel. The spiritual atmosphere, the divine art, and the impressive architecture left me speechless. Truly stunning.”

Referring to his meeting with Parolin and Gallagher, Blinken said he enjoyed the conversation, which “emphasized continued cooperation on efforts to promote our shared values and address humanitarian crises around the world.”

Blinken’s stop in Italy is part of a broader June 22-29 trip to Europe, which has included stops in Berlin and Paris.

A first meeting between Holy See and U.S. officials in the Biden administration has been highly anticipated, as it comes on the heels of a vote from the U.S. bishops to draft a document on the Eucharist which is expected to address the question of whether Catholic pro-choice politicians such as Biden ought to be allowed to receive Communion.

Although Blinken himself is not Catholic, his wife Evan Ryan is. The two were married in a interreligious ceremony at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington, D.C., which was officiated by a rabbi and a priest.