ROME — President Obama and Pope Francis met for the first time Thursday in a discussion that focused on international conflict, human rights and religious freedom.
Obama invited Francis to visit the U.S. next year.
The private meeting was widely expected to be cordial — while providing Francis with an opportunity to raise some prickly issues. The Vatican opposes the Affordable Care Act mandate that Catholic hospitals and institutions provide health plans that cover contraceptive drugs and abortifacients such as morning-after pills, which the church opposes on moral grounds.
The church also opposes same-sex marriage, which Obama supports.
Obama, at a news conference later with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, said those discussions took place with the Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, not with Francis. Issues such as contraception and religious freedom, Obama said, were “not a topic of conversation” with the pope.
“I was grateful to have the opportunity to speak with him about the responsibilities that we all share to care for the least of these, the poor, the excluded,” Obama said. “And I was extremely moved by his insights about the importance of us all having a moral perspective on world problems and not simply thinking in terms of our own narrow self-interests.”
The brief Vatican statement provided few specifics from the 52-minute meeting.
“Views were exchanged on some current international themes and 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,” the statement said.
The statement add that “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 also included a mutual commitment to ending human trafficking.
Before the meeting, both men were all smiles.
“I bring greetings from my family,” the president said to the pope when they met. “The last time I came here to meet your predecessor I was able to bring my wife and children.”
Obama presented Francis with a custom-made seed chest featuring a variety of fruit and vegetable seeds used in the White House’s garden. “These I think are carrots,” he said, holding a pouch. “Each one has a different seed in it. The box is made from timber from the first cathedral to open in the United States in Baltimore.”
The pope gave the president an encyclical. “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 smiling.
In Italy, Obama’s visit — which also included talks with Renzi and President Giorgio Napolitano — has been a topic of conversation all week. Italians said they hoped Obama’s short stop in Italy would lead to positive changes in the country and beyond.
“The whole world is suffering, and when you have two great leaders meet to discuss the world’s economic problems, you have to have hope it will make a difference,” said Salvatore Mucci, a 44-year-old coffee bar worker.
Sandro Conti, 56, a commercial painter, said he hoped Thursday’s meeting would draw increased attention to the issues both men champion.
“If these leaders can’t make people understand how much average people are suffering, then it will be a sad day,” he said.
Obama has repeatedly expressed admiration for Francis in the little more than a year since he was elected pontiff. Francis had said he was eager to meet Obama as well. And diplomats on both sides had said expectations were that Thursday’s encounter would focus on shared priorities between the two leaders rather than on where they differ.
This is Obama’s second meeting with a pontiff following a discussion with Benedict XVI when Obama was in Italy in 2009 for the G-8 summit. Every U.S. president since Dwight D. Eisenhower met John XXIII in 1959 has met the pope, and with Thursday’s meeting every pope since then with the exception of John Paul I — who was pope for only 33 days — met the U.S. president.
Courtesy of USA Today