A visibly energized President Barack Obama held a nearly hourlong audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Thursday, expressing his great admiration for the pontiff and inviting him to visit the White House.
Although Obama and the church remain deeply split over abortion and contraception, Obama considers the pontiff a kindred spirit on issues of economic inequality, and their private meeting in the Papal Library ran longer than scheduled. After they emerged to cameras, Francis presented Obama with a copy of his papal mission statement decrying a global economic system that excludes the poor. Obama said he will keep it in the Oval Office.
The president and pope both appeared tense at the start of the audience, when they initially greeted one another, but then were all smiles by the end of the meeting and seemed to have found a rapport, though they spoke through interpreters.
“It is a great honor. I’m a great admirer,” Obama said after greeting the pope with a slight bow as they shook hands. “Thank you so much for receiving me.”
Obama arrived at the Vatican amid all the pomp and tradition of the Catholic Church, making his way in a long, slow procession through the hallways of the Apostolic Palace led by colorful Swiss Guards and accompanied by ceremonial attendants. The president bowed as he shook hands with the pontiff in the Small Throne Room, before the two sat down at the pope’s desk, as is custom for a papal audience.
The two were scheduled to meet for just half an hour, but their private discussion lasted 52 minutes. At the end, they exchanged gifts, with the pope offering Obama two medallions and a copy of his apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel.”
“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 said.
“I hope,” the pope responded.
In a brief departure from all the formality, the metal support stilts being used to prop up the gifts repeatedly gave way, causing an audible crash that drew the consternation of the Vatican’s protocol monsignors and a look from Obama. Eventually, aides gave up on using the stilts.
Obama presented the pope with a seed chest with fruit and vegetable seeds used in the White House Garden, mentioning that he understands the pope is opening the gardens at the papal summer residence to the public. The chest was inscribed with the date of their meeting and custom-made of leather and reclaimed wood from the Baltimore Basilica — one of the oldest Catholic cathedrals in the U.S.