President Barack Obama called himself a “great admirer” of Pope Francis as he sat down at the Vatican with the pontiff he considers a kindred spirit on issues of economic inequality.
Their nearly hour-long first meeting came as Mr Obama’s administration remains deeply split with the church over abortion and contraception.
Mr Obama arrived at the Vatican amid the pomp and tradition of the Catholic Church, making his way to greet the Pope after a long, slow procession through the hallways of the Apostolic Palace led by colourful 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 a wooden table in the Papal Library. “It is a great honour. I’m a great admirer,” Mr Obama said.
The two were scheduled to meet for just half an hour, but their private discussion lasted 52 minutes. Mr Obama seemed buoyed by the meeting as they emerged and the pope greeted a handful of Mr Obama’s senior advisers. Mr Obama’s Catholic secretary of state, John Kerry, pronounced himself “a great admirer of everything you’ve been doing, as a Catholic, for the church”.
Mr Obama and Francis then exchanged gifts, with the Pope handing the president a plaque and an encyclical, or papal letter. “I actually will probably read this in the Oval Office when I’m deeply frustrated. I’m sure it will give me strength and calm me down,” the president said. The pope chuckled after Mr Obama’s reaction was interpreted by his Spanish translator.
Mr Obama presented the Pope with a seed chest with fruit and vegetable seeds used in the White House Garden, mentioning that he heard 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 is custom-made of leather and reclaimed wood from the Baltimore Basilica - one of the oldest Catholic cathedrals in the US.
“If you have a chance to come to the White House, we can show you our garden as well,” Mr Obama said. He later joked of all the pageantry surrounding his Vatican visit, “His Holiness is probably the only person in the world who has to put up with more protocol.”
In a brief departure from all the formality, the support stilts being used to prop up a gift from Francis repeatedly gave way, causing an audible crash that captured Mr Obama’s attention. Eventually, aides gave up on using the stilts to hold up the gift.
Before he departed, Mr Obama asked the pontiff for prayers for his family, and the pope assented.
As they met, the six-year president, with his sinking poll numbers, would not have been blamed for seeking some reflected glory from a pope who, one year into his pontificate, is viewed as an agent of change in the Roman Catholic Church. In Francis, the White House sees the popular pope and his emphasis on economic disparity as a form of moral validation of the president’s own economic agenda.
“Given his great moral authority, when the pope speaks it carries enormous weight,” Mr Obama said in an interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera published ahead of his papal visit. “He can cause people around to the world to stop and perhaps rethink old attitudes and begin treating one another with more decency and compassion.”
After leaving the Vatican at midday, Mr Obama made his way to Rome’s Quirinal Palace for meetings and a working lunch with Italian president Giorgio Napolitano.
Mr Obama is the ninth president to make an official visit to the Vatican. His audience marks a change of pace for the president, who has devoted the past three days of a week-long, four-country trip to securing European unity against Russia’s aggressive posture toward Ukraine.