President Barack Obama met with Pope Francis for the first time Thursday in a 52-minute private audience as part of his jam-packed tour of Europe and the Middle East.
The pair shook hands and smiled warmly in front of cameras inside the Apostolic Palace. "Thank you, it's so nice to see you, good to see ya," Obama repeated. "I'm a great admirer."
The two leaders sat either side of a desk in the papal library where the pontiff quietly said, "Welcome, Mr. President" in English before switching to Italian.
Obama is the ninth president to make an official visit to the Vatican. His audience was a change of pace after three days of high-level talks with European leaders aimed at creating a unified Western response to Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.
It was not entirely a meeting of minds. The Vatican has made clear its concern at the Affordable Care Act, which mandates employers to provide health insurance coverage for contraception.
But although Obama and Pope Francis have differing views on contraception, abortion rights and gay marriage, they have common ground on poverty and social justice – themes at the heart of the president’s 2008 election campaign.
After their meeting, the president presented the pontiff with a custom-made seed chest containing a variety of fruit and vegetable seeds used in the White House garden - a nod to the pope's decision to open the gardens of his summer residence to the public later this year.The chest was custom-made of leather and reclaimed wood from the Baltimore Basilica, one of the oldest Catholic cathedrals in the U.S.
The pope offered Obama two medallions and a copy of his apostolic exhortation "The Joy of the Gospel," in which he denounced the global economic system that excludes the poor. “And this, for when you are bored,” the pope said in Spanish as he handed over the book.
"You know, I actually will probably read this when I'm in the Oval Office, when I am deeply frustrated and I am sure it will give me strength and will calm me down," Obama replied.
"I hope," the pope responded.
The presidential motorcade swept into St Peter's Square at the Vatican at 10:15 a.m. local time (5:15 a.m. ET), from where Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry walked slowly towards the papal studio, escorted by the distinctive Swiss Guards.
The private meeting began at 10:27 a.m. (5:27 a.m. ET) and lasted until 11:19 a.m. (6:19 a.m.).
Later, Obama was then due to meet Pietro Parolin, secretary of state for the Holy See, and tour Rome’s famous Coliseum before heading to Saudi Arabia for a meeting on Friday with King Abdullah.
- Alastair Jamieson, Chuck Todd, Claudio Lavanga and Stacey Klein
First published March 27 2014, 1:28 AM