President Biden, who spent most of this week exploring his family lineage in Ireland, broke down in tears on Friday after an impromptu meeting with a person from his more recent past: the priest who had administered last rites to his son, Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer in 2015.
Mr. Biden became emotional after seeing the priest, Friar Frank O’Grady, who was given a last-minute security approval for the meeting at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Knock, a sacred shrine for Roman Catholics, who have reported seeing apparitions of the Virgin Mary and other holy figures there.
A White House official who confirmed the meeting called it “spontaneous,” in that Friar O’Grady’s presence in Knock was not known to officials who spent weeks poring over the details of the trip. According to the Irish Independent, Mr. Biden had one reply when he was told by Friar Richard Gibbons, the Knock Parish priest, that Friar O’Grady was living in Knock and working as a chaplain: “I gotta meet him, I gotta meet him.”
Friar O’Grady, a former U.S. Army chaplain, had been assigned to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., when Beau Biden died at age 46.
Later, Mr. Biden visited a hospice center in Knock, where a plaque hangs in memory of his son.
Much of the president’s three-day visit here wove together the threads of his life and Irish heritage with the more pressing responsibilities he has assumed as president. But for all of the ceremony and warmth he has received here, Mr. Biden was not visibly emotional until he visited Knock and encountered the memory of his son, whom he has described to his aides as “me, but without all the downsides.”
In an interview with the BBC, Friar Gibbons said that the president had “dispatched a Secret Service agent to go and find him” once he heard that Friar O’Grady, who hadn’t initially wanted to draw attention to himself, was nearby. Friar Gibbons added that the president had cried. “He got the shock of his life, to come over, so that was a wonderful, spontaneous thing that happened.”
When Beau was alive, he and his father were each other’s primary sounding boards, especially when it came to political and messaging strategy, according to several of Mr. Biden’s advisers. And Beau, who was the attorney general of Delaware, was considered the heir apparent to the Biden political brand.
In speeches, Oval Office discussions and personal asides, Mr. Biden tends to find a common thread back to his son, no matter the topic. Indeed, a day earlier, Mr. Biden, who traveled the country this week with his sister, Valerie Biden Owens, and his son, Hunter, addressed the Irish Parliament. As he often does, he told the group there that his eldest son “should be the one standing here giving this speech to you.”
On Friday, Friar O’Grady told the news site RTE that the president was still grieving.
“He has been grieving a lot but I think the grief is kind of going down a bit. We talked a little bit about how grief can take several years.”