As expected, the first meeting between Pope Francis and President Barack Obama went as scripted — at least in public, and with one exception. A gift from Francis fell over, making a loud crash and frustrating Vatican officials that finally shrugged it off. The private meeting appeared to go well, with both men smiling as they exited the room and met the two delegations:
The private meeting between Pope Francis and Barack Obama lasted almost an hour:
The two were scheduled to meet for just half an hour, but their private discussion lasted 52 minutes. Obama seemed buoyed by the meeting as they emerged and the pope greeted a handful of Obama’s senior advisers. 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.”
The president and pope both appeared tense at the start of the audience, when they initially greeted one another, but then were all smiles by the end of the meeting and seemed to have found a rapport, though they spoke through interpreters.
They exchanged gifts, with the pope offering Obama two medallions and a copy of his apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” 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.
Obama’s gift-giving skills have improved — or perhaps he’s hired more competent advisers in his Office of Protocol. No iPods of his speeches were given this time, but instead a gift with some thought put into it:
The president also presented the pope with a custom-made seed chest featuring a variety of fruit and vegetable seeds used in the White House Garden. The chest is made from American leather and wood from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
“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.”
We’ll know more when we get the readout from the State Department and from the Vatican. The longer time usually means a pleasant conversation, although it could also mean that the debate on issues might have been more intense that usual, too. Neither side stands to gain from emphasizing negatives, so expect both to issue warm and congratulatory statements that emphasizes the agenda for each. The Pope will have to have raised the issues of abortion and the HHS contraception mandate to express solidarity with American bishops, while Obama will no doubt emphasize their commonality on poverty and income inequality.
The real story will come out later. Pay attention to reporters like John Thavis and John Allen at the Boston Globe for the fly-on-the-wall-once-removed perspectives down the road.
Update: The first readout of the meeting comes from the Vatican, which makes it sound as though Obama didn’t get much of a pass:
This morning, 27 March 2014, the Hon. Barack H. Obama, President of the United States of America, was received in audience by His Holiness Pope Francis, after which he met with His Eminence Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State, and Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, Secretary for Relations with States.
During the cordial meetings, 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.
In the context of bilateral relations and cooperation between Church and State, 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. Finally, the common commitment to the eradication of trafficking of human persons in the world was stated.
Interestingly, there is no mention of poverty and income inequality from the Vatican. That seems like a significant omission, especially considering Pope Francis’ focus in that area.
Update: Karl’s tweet sums it up for Obama:
— Just Karl (@justkarl) March 27, 2014