VATICAN CITY — President Barack Obama and Pope Francis met for the first time on Thursday for a private discussion that touched on international conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, as well as U.S. domestic issues, including the concept of religious freedom and immigration policy.
After a ceremonial procession through the Apostolic Palace, led by Swiss Guards and attendants known as the Papal Gentlemen, President Obama enthusiastically greeted the leader of the Catholic Church.
"It is a great honor," he said, bowing as he shook hands with Pope Francis. "I'm a great admirer. Thank you so much for receiving me."
The pope and the president continued to exchange greetings as they walked into the papal library with two interpreters (the pope speaks English, but not fluently). After a brief photo op, press and staff were escorted out of the room so the leaders could talk privately.
The White House has yet to comment on what was discussed Thursday, but a statement from the Vatican confirmed that the topics included specific areas where the Obama administration and Catholic leaders in America remain divided.
Francis and Obama talked about "the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection, as well as the issue of immigration reform," all of which were described as "questions of particular relevance for the Church."
The Catholic Church in America has fiercely opposed the Affordable Care Act's mandate for contraception coverage on the grounds of religious liberty. The Supreme Court will soon decide whether employers will be able to use such an argument to deny insurance that covers birth control to their employees.
The "cordial" meeting also touched on the ongoing turmoil in Syria and Ukraine. Human trafficking was also discussed and both leaders affirmed their common commitment to ending the practice. The meeting was scheduled to last for 30 minutes, but Pope Francis and Obama continued their discussion and emerged after 52 minutes to exchange gifts and greet the diplomatic delegations.
Obama presented the pope with with a custom-made seed chest made of wood from the oldest Catholic church in America, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore, Md. The chest contained fruit and vegetable seeds used in the White House garden and an inscription of the date of their meeting.
"If you have a chance to come to the White House, we can show you our garden as well," the president said.
"Why not?" the pope responded in Spanish. Pope Francis gifted the president with two medallions, one of which symbolizes the need for solidarity and peace between the northern and southern hemispheres. He also gave Obama a bound copy of his first apostolic exhortation, "Evangelii Gaudium" or "The Joy of the Gospel."
"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. After his remarks were translated, the pope chuckled and said, "I hope."
As the two leaders shook hands good-bye, Obama expressed his disappointment that his family wasn't able to meet the pontiff. "My family has to be with me on this journey," he said. "They've been very strong. Pray for them. I would appreciate it." Pope Francis nodded his assent.