President Barack Obama met with Pope Francis on Thursday at the Vatican, in his second Papal visit and first with the new Pontiff.
“Wonderful meeting you,” Obama told the Pope upon being greeted outside the Papal Library following a ceremonial procession led by the Vatican’s Swiss Guards.
“It is a great honor. I’m a great admirer,” Obama said. “Thank you so much for receiving me.”
The White House said before the visit that the meeting would be an opportunity for the two world leaders to discuss their shared commitment to combatting economic inequality, an issue Pope Francis has prioritized during his first year in office. Democrats have increasingly used the Pope’s emphasis on inequality as a political cudgel against Republicans ahead of the midterm elections.
But the gathering was also seen as an opportunity for the president to smooth ties with the Vatican and the large Hispanic Catholic population in America whose support for Obama has waned since helping vote him into office. The Vatican has been critical of a measure in Obama’s health care reform law that mandates contraception coverage, and officials said before the meeting that Pope Francis would likely raise those concerns.
In a news conference after the meeting with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, Obama said the Pope “did not touch in detail” on the issue of contraception. Instead, he said he discussed religious freedoms in the context of the healthcare law with Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State.
The President said his conversation with Pope Francis focused on other issues, including conflict and growing inequality worldwide as well as immigration in the United States. He also said he extended an invitation to the Pope to come to the U.S.
But he played down suggestions from a reporter that he would collaborate with the Pope on inequality.
“You know, I don’t think that His Holiness envisions entering into a partnership or coalition with any political figure on any issue,” he said. “His job is a little more elevated. We’re down on the ground, dealing with the often profane, and he’s dealing with higher powers.”
The Vatican said in its own statement that the meeting focused on social issues. “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,” the Vatican said in the statement.
“He can cause people around to the world to stop and perhaps rethink old attitudes and begin treating one another with more decency and compassion,” Obama said in an interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera before the meeting.
The White House said Obama presented Pope Francis with “a custom-made seed chest featuring a variety of fruit and vegetable seeds used in the White House Garden,” noting that the Pontiff said earlier this month that he would open the gardens of the papal summer residence to the public.
“I bring greetings from my family,” Obama told the Pope upon meeting him. “The last time I came here to meet your predecessor I was able to bring my wife and children.”
Obama, on a week-long tour in Europe that has primarily focused on regional security amid recent tension with Russia, is the ninth president to make an official visit to the Vatican.
-with reporting from Zeke J Miller