ROME — Bill O’Reilly, the embattled Fox News host facing a barrage of sexual harassment accusations, briefly met Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square on Wednesday morning during the pontiff’s weekly general audience, shaking hands with a religious leader he once lectured over immigration.
Mr. O’Reilly, on vacation in Italy for the past week, sat in a V.I.P. section and shook hands with Francis. A photographer for L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, took a picture of Mr. O’Reilly, in a striped tie, shirt and jacket, shaking hands with Francis.
The weekly audience is a large event open to the public, with tens of thousands of the faithful filling the square. But the special section beside the stage holding the papal throne, where Mr. O’Reilly sat, is exclusive and entered only with special tickets distributed by the prefecture of the papal household, according to the Vatican press office.
The Vatican said last week that no official audience with Mr. O’Reilly was scheduled or would occur.
The current prefect of the papal household is conservative Archbishop Georg Gänswein, the longtime personal secretary of the pope emeritus, Benedict XVI.
The post-audience greetings in the section are something akin to a V.I.P. rope line, and a way for visiting dignitaries to get to meet the pope without a formal audience. Often though, the pope is unaware of the people he is meeting there, and Wednesday’s exchange with Mr. O’Reilly echoed the pope’s 2015 meeting in the United States with Kim Davis, a county clerk in Kentucky who became a conservative hero for defying a court order to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. That meeting struck a discordant note with the rest of Francis’ visit to the United States, but many conservative American Catholics, who have criticized the pope’s inclusive agenda, pointed to it as proof that the pope had not departed from the traditional culture war agenda.
Mr. O’Reilly falls on the conservative side of the divide and in February 2016 lectured Francis over immigration after the pope stepped into the heated American presidential campaign. In remarks that appeared aimed at Donald J. Trump, who had pledged to build a wall at the border with Mexico, Francis said: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”
Days later, on his television show, Mr. O’Reilly, who has been a key booster of Mr. Trump, said: “The pope. I would very much like to speak with him. And if I can arrange that, I would like to bring the family of Kate Steinle with me,” he said, referring to an American woman killed by a Mexican laborer who had been deported from the United States multiple times, a case often brought up by Mr. Trump on the campaign trail.
“Finally,” Mr. O’Reilly added, “I would suggest to Pope Francis that millions of Americans have been harmed economically by our immigration system, which desperately needs reform. I think I could persuade the pope that providing protection and enforcing settled law is certainly not un-Christian.”
It was unclear if Mr. O’Reilly said as much during his face time on Wednesday with Francis, who has made mercy a cornerstone of his pontificate. A priest translating for the English-speaking visitors and pilgrims summarized Francis’ remarks made to the general audience and then told the ticket-holding attendees the pope would give them his apostolic blessing and bless their religious artifacts.
The encounter came as Mr. O’Reilly’s career at Fox News looked increasingly imperiled after dozens of advertisers abandoned his highly-rated program and the Murdoch family that owns Fox News’s parent company, 21st Century Fox, began to show signs of eroding support.
The family has supported Mr. O’Reilly in the past, but a New York Times article this month detailing harassment allegations against him seems to have put his standing atop cable television news in jeopardy.
On a chilly Wednesday morning at the Vatican, Francis circled the piazza in his popemobile and spoke to the faithful about how happiness and joy can grow where everyone thinks there is only “sadness, defeat and shadow.”
“God makes his most beautiful flowers bloom amid the most arid rocks,” Francis said. Then he gave a special greeting to English-speaking pilgrims, including Mr. O’Reilly, saying: “I invoke upon you and your families the loving mercy of God our Father.”
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