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The Pope and the President

Despite Differences, Obama’s a ‘Great Admirer’ of the Holy Father

BY Edward Pentin

Rome Correspondent

April 6-19, 2014 Issue | Posted 4/1/14 at 9:49 AM

 

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis discussed the right to religious freedom, life, conscientious objection and conflict resolution with President Barack Obama on March 27.

The 52-minute meeting in the library of the apostolic palace was "cordial," the Vatican said in a statement, and views were exchanged "on some current international themes."

"In the context of bilateral relations and cooperation between church and state, there was a discussion on questions of particular relevance for the Church in that country, such as the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection, as well as the issue of immigration reform," the statement said.

It also said it was "hoped that, in areas of conflict, there would be respect for humanitarian and international law and a negotiated solution between the parties involved," but it did not specify any particular conflicts.

Finally, it concluded, "the common commitment to the eradication of trafficking of human persons in the world was stated."

The Obama administration was billing this as a great meeting of minds on how to combat poverty and income inequality, but, interestingly, the subject wasn’t mentioned in the Vatican statement.

An informed source said that, although the issue is naturally of common concern, the Pope and Obama have different approaches. The statement was also general about international conflicts to ensure that none were left out, but, certainly, Syria, Ukraine and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts would have been discussed, the source said.

The audience ran more than 50 minutes, partly because the issues discussed covered the whole world, but also because of time taken for translation. The Pope spoke in Spanish throughout the meeting, helped by interpreter Msgr. Mark Miles, a Gibraltar native and official in the Secretariat of State.

 

A ‘Great Admirer’

On meeting the Holy Father for the first time, Obama said: "How are you? Wonderful meeting you; thank you so much for receiving me." The president said it was a "great honor" to meet Pope Francis, adding that he is a "great admirer."

The president also extended the greetings of his family, observing, "The last time I came to meet your predecessor, I was able to bring my wife and children."

Obama met with Pope Benedict XVI in July 2009.

Obama gave the Holy Father a variety of seeds planted in the White House Gardens, housed in a custom-made seed chest that was made from wood reclaimed from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore.

The cornerstone of the Baltimore basilica, the White House pointed out, was laid by John Carroll, a Jesuit and the first Catholic bishop and archbishop in the United States.

The seeds, which will produce fruits and vegetables, were chosen in celebration of the recent opening to the public of the Pontifical Gardens at the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo. The gift, the White House said, "honors the commitment of Your Holiness to sow the seeds of global peace for future generations."

In addition, the White House said a private donation of seeds "will be given to a charity in honor of Your Holiness," and they will "yield several tons of fresh produce."

Presenting the seeds to the Pope, Obama explained that each box contained a different seed. If the Pope "had the chance to come to the White House," he could see the garden for himself, Obama added. Francis replied in Spanish: "Why not?"

For his part, Pope Francis presented the president with two bronze medals. One, called the "Medallion With an Angel — Solidarity and Peace," depicts an angel, mystical in appearance, embracing and bringing together the Northern and Southern Hemispheres of the Earth, while overcoming the opposition of a dragon.

"The figure of the angel illustrates contemporary challenges: bringing the world’s northern and southern regions together and harmonizing them, while combating all disruptive forces, such as exploitation, intransigent opposition, new forms of colonialism, indifference, mistrust and prejudice," the Vatican explained in an accompanying note.

 

Presidential Reading Material

The second medal commemorates the 1657 laying of the first stone of the north colonnade of St. Peter’s Basilica, the one nearest the apostolic palace. "The medal bears witness to the original project of Bernini, which provided for a third colonnade, never built, which would have enclosed the square," the Vatican said.

The Pope also presented the president with a bound copy of his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). "You know, I actually will probably read this in the Oval Office when I’m deeply frustrated," Obama said. "I’m sure it’ll give me strength and calm me down." The Pope simply replied: "I hope."

In the public moments of the meeting, Pope Francis mostly had a serious demeanor and smiled little, in contrast to some of his previous and recent meetings with heads of state, although reporters present said the meeting was "good-humored."

Among those in the presidential delegation were Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney and U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Ken Hackett.

As he left, Obama joked with the Holy Father’s interpreter, Msgr. Miles, saying, "His Holiness is probably the only person who has to put up with more protocol than me."

"Muchas gracias," Obama said on leaving. "Please pray for me and my family. They are with me on this journey [of life], and my girls and wife have to put up with me."

After bidding farewell, the president and his advisers met with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Secretary for Relations With States Archbishop Dominique Mamberti for talks that lasted 30 minutes.

 

Catholic News Agency

contributed to this report.