VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Pope Francis received U.S. President Barack Obama at the Vatican March 27. In what was their first encounter, the two leaders spoke in private for more than 50 minutes, an extraordinarily long time for such a meeting.
At the end of their talk, Pope Francis gave Obama a bound edition of his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), published last November. The gift prompted the president to respond: “You know, I actually will probably read this in the Oval Office when I am deeply frustrated, and I am sure it will give me strength and will calm me down.”
“I hope,” the pope replied with a laugh.
In a December speech, Obama quoted a passage from the exhortation in which the pope lamented: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”
Pope Francis also presented Obama with a pair of bronze medallions, one portraying an angel that brings together the world’s North and South in “solidarity and peace founded on justice”; and another commemorating the 17th-century construction of the colonnades around St. Peter’s Square.
The president’s gift to the pope was a selection of fruit and vegetable seeds from the White House garden, in a box made from reclaimed wood used to build Baltimore’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the first Catholic cathedral in the United States.
“If you have a chance to come to the White House, we can show you our garden as well,” Obama said.
“Of course,” the pope replied.
Organizers of the September 2015 World Meeting of Families have voiced hopes that Pope Francis will attend that event, which could be the occasion for a state visit to the U.S.
Obama’s visit to the Vatican came in the course of a six-day international trip that included stops in the Netherlands and Belgium and was scheduled to end in Saudi Arabia. The day before his meeting with Pope Francis, Obama met with European Union and NATO officials in Brussels, where he discussed economic and strategic responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier in the month.
The president’s motorcade entered the Vatican a few minutes after 10 a.m., under cloudy skies with temperatures in the low 50s. Archbishop Georg Ganswein, prefect of the papal household, greeted him in the San Damaso Courtyard of the Apostolic Palace, then led him upstairs to the pope’s private library, followed by Obama’s entourage, which included U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry; Susan Rice, the national security adviser, and Ambassador Ken Hackett, the U.S. envoy to the Holy See.
The pope greeted the president outside his library a few minutes before the appointed time of 10:30.
“Wonderful meeting you, I’m a great admirer,” Obama told the pope as they shook hands.
Inside the library, the two leaders sat down on either side of the pope’s desk, each with an interpreter beside him. Through his interpreter, Msgr. Mark Miles, the pope, who spoke in Spanish, could be heard telling the president: “I’d like you to feel really at home here.”
During an extended handshake at the end of the meeting, Obama told the pope: “My family has to be with me on this journey. They’ve been very strong. Pray for them. I would appreciate it.”
After his meeting with the pope, Obama met for more than half an hour with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state. Kerry, Rice and Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, the Vatican’s foreign minister, also participated in that meeting.
— By Francis X. Rocca, Catholic News Service