Pope and president all smiles, but Vatican official also raises religious freedom in U.S.

Lesley Clark

President Barack Obama proclaimed himself a “great admirer” as he met Pope Francis for the first time Thursday, delivering a box of vegetable seeds from the White House garden, along with an invite to tour it in person.

But if Obama was hoping, as the White House said, the gift would help harvest a “shared commitment” to fighting poverty, it wasn’t evident in a statement the Vatican released several hours after the encounter, which it characterized as “cordial.”

Obama called the 52-minute meeting as a “wide-ranging session” that focused on the poor and concerns about international conflicts.

“We spent a lot of time talking about the challenges of conflict and how elusive peace is around the world,” Obama said during a joint news conference later Thursday with Italian Prime Minister Mateo Renzi.

“There was some specific focus on the Middle East, where His Holiness has a deep interest in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but also what’s happening in Syria, what’s happening in Lebanon, and the potential persecution of Christians,” Obama said.

The Vatican statement noted that the discussions _ which also included a meeting with the church’s secretary of state _ covered issues “of particular relevance for the Church, such as the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection,” a pointed reference to U.S. Catholic bishops’ staunch objection to the administration’s birth control mandate.

The meeting came just two days after the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments over the requirement in the Obama’s health care law that employer-provided health insurance provide free contraception _ a provision hotly contested by a number of religious institutions.

Obama said that the pope didn’t bring up the Affordable Care Act and that they didn’t discuss abortion, same-sex marriage or other social issues.

“We actually didn’t talk a whole lot about social schisms in my conversations with His Holiness,” the president said. “I think His Holiness and the Vatican have been clear about their position on a range of issues, some of them I differ with, most I heartily agree with.”

“And I don’t think His Holiness envisions entering into a partnership or a coalition with any political figure on any issue,” he said. “His job is a little more elevated.”

But the health care law did come up in a separate meeting with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state.

The president said he pledged “to continue to dialogue with the U.S. Conference of Bishops to make sure we can strike the right balance, making sure that not only everybody has health care but families, and women in particular, are able to enjoy the kind of health care coverage that the (health care law) offers, but that religious freedom is still observed.”

Outwardly, the meeting appeared warm. Obama was greeted by Pope Francis in the Small Throne Room outside the Papal Library. They walked toward each other and stretched out their hands in greeting, both smiling.

“It is a great honor. I’m a great admirer,” Obama told Francis, the two sitting at opposite sides of the pope’s desk, along with their interpreters. “Thank you so much for receiving me.”

He told Francis that he brought greetings from his family, noting “the last time I came here to meet your predecessor I was able to bring my wife and children.”

The meeting between the charismatic leader whose popularity in the first year on the world stage rivals _ if not eclipsed _ Obama’s own lasted about 50 minutes.

Presenting Francis with a custom-made seed chest featuring a variety of fruit and vegetable seeds used in the White House garden, Obama mentioned that he’d heard the pope has decided to open gardens at the summer residence to the public.

“If you have a chance to come to the White House, we can show you our garden as well,” the president said. There were laughs as the Argentine-born pope responded in Spanish: “Como no,” which translates to “Why not?” or “For sure.”

“These I think are carrots,” Obama 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 chest is made from American leather and features reclaimed wood from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which is one of the oldest Catholic cathedrals in the United States.

The inscription on the chest reads: “Presented to His Holiness Pope Francis by Barack Obama President of the United States of America March 27, 2014.”

The pope presented Obama with two medallions, including one that symbolized the need for solidarity and peace between the northern and southern hemispheres. Obama said he’d treasure the gifts.

The other gift was a copy of Evangelii Gaudium, or “The Joy of the Gospel,” a 2013 apostolic exhortation by Francis that called for a renewed focus on the world’s poor.

“I actually will probably read this in the Oval Office when I’m deeply frustrated,” Obama said. “I’m sure it will give me strength and calm me down.”

Once the remark was interpreted for him, the pope smiled as well and chuckled. “I hope,” the pope responded.

In an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Obama called Francis “an inspiration to people around the world, including me, with his commitment to social justice and his message of love and compassion, especially for the poor and the vulnerable among us.

“He doesn’t just proclaim the Gospel, he lives it,” Obama said. “We’ve all been moved by his humility and acts of mercy. His deeds, the simple act of reaching out to the least of these, is a reminder that every one of us has an individual responsibility to live in a righteous way.”

William Douglas in Washington contributed.

By Lesley Clark
McClatchy Washington Bureau