Obama, Pope Francis find common ground, sharp divisions
VATICAN CITY — President Barack Obama and the Vatican gave distinctly different accounts of the president's audience with Pope Francis, with Obama stressing their common ground over issues of poverty and inequality and Vatican officials emphasizing sharp differences over abortion and birth control.
Obama described himself as "incredibly moved" by his nearly hour-long session with the popular pontiff. He said the two spent the most time discussing the plight of the poor and the marginalized as well as regions of conflict and the elusive nature of peace around the world.
The Vatican, in statement shortly after the conclusion of the meeting, said discussions centered 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" — issues that have fueled divisions between Obama and Catholics in the U.S.
But Obama said those discussions took place with the Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, not with Francis. Issues like contraception and religious freedom, Obama said, "really was 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 during a news conference with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in Rome. "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 marked difference in emphasis introduced a perplexing element to the long-anticipated meeting, which the White House has looked forward to as way to validate Obama's economic policies. But in a report on Vatican Radio the day before the meeting, the Vatican signaled that the divisive issues would indeed be on the agenda.
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The exchange of gifts
The exchange of gifts is a de rigueur part of every papal audience but Thursday's presentation had an unusually loud element to it. A metal support stilt holding up the top of President Barack Obama's gift — a chest of seeds from the White House garden — twice crashed onto the marble floor of the pope's library when photographers banged into the table holding it.
The Vatican's protocol monsignors glared at the offending journalists and even Obama appeared cross at the interruption.
Eventually, aides gave up and let the top of the seed chest hang down without the support.
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"These I think are carrots," Obama told the pope as he pulled out a blue velvet pouch from the seed chest.
The White House said the gift was inspired by Francis' decision to open to the public the gardens of Castel Gandolfo, the pope's summer residence in the hills south of Rome. The 135 acres of gardens actually cover more ground than Vatican City and include gardens of herbs, roses, fountains and fish ponds.
Pope Benedict XVI spent the first two months of his retirement there, and popes for centuries have spent at least part of the hot summer months there. But Francis has decided not to use the retreat, preferring to work through the summer from his headquarters at the Vatican hotel.
The White House said that, in addition to the gift of seeds, it would donate even more seeds to a charity in Francis' honor that will yield "several tons of fresh produce."
"This gift honors the commitment of Your Holiness to sow the seeds of global peace for future generations," the White House said in its description of the gift.
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Francis typically presents Vatican-themed bronze medallions to his visitors and Obama was no different, though he did get two rather than the usual one.
The smaller medallion depicts an angel bringing together the northern and southern hemispheres — appropriate for a gift from a South American pope to a North American president.
The larger medallion depicts the original project that Bernini had for St. Peter's Square, which involved a never-built third colonnade to enclose the piazza.
But the gift that most drew Obama's attention was the red-bound copy of the pope's apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, Francis' mission statement for his papacy in which he denounced the global economic system that excludes the poor.
"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.