[Editor’s note: This post was updated after the release of the Vatican Statement on the meeting.]
In their first encounter, after much fanfare at the Vatican Apostolic Palace, Pope Francis and President Barack Obama spoke privately for more than 50 minutes, which, according to Catholic News Service, is rather long for a meeting such as this.
“It’s a great honor. I’m a great admirer,” Obama greeted Pope Francis, according to ZENIT.
This is the second time Obama has visited the Vatican. He was received by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on July 10, 2009. This time, reported ZENIT, the president was accompanied by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Kenneth F. Hackett, U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.
This meeting has been highly anticipated by secular and Catholic onlookers alike. Speculation on topics spanned from religious freedom to economic inequality. According to the Vatican statement on the meeting, Pope Francis and Obama discussed “current international themes”; topics relevant to the U.S., including religious freedom, life, conscientious objection and immigration; and a mutual commitment to eliminating human trafficking.
“The Holy Father has been 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,” Obama said in an interview with Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, according to The Washington Post. “And he doesn’t just proclaim the Gospel, he lives it.”
After their private meeting, Pope Francis and Obama exchanged gifts. Pope Francis first gave the president a copy of his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), which the president said he would read when he needed a boost in spirits, according to Catholic News Service.
The pope also presented two bronze medallions, one that depicts an angel bringing together the northern and southern parts of the earth with the engraving “A World of Solidarity and Peace Founded on Justice” and the other commemorating the first stone laid for the north colonnade of St. Peter’s Basilica, according to ZENIT.
According to Catholic News Service, Obama presented Pope Francis with fruit and vegetable seeds inside a custom-made and engraved chest. It was made with wood from the first Catholic cathedral in the United States, Baltimore’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
This gift holds weighty significance, because, according to Rocco Palmo of Whispers in the Loggio, Jesuit founder Bishop John Carroll and Benjamin Latrobe designed the basilica as “a monument to religious freedom in the American experiment.”
The Vatican has not released further information on the content of the conversation. The influence of the conversation remains to be seen.
“One of the qualities that I admire most about the Holy Father is his courage in speaking out on some of the great economic and social issues of our time,” Obama said, according to The Washington Post. “It doesn’t mean we agree on every issue, but his voice is one that I think the world needs to hear. He challenges us.”
Jennifer Rey is the web editor of Our Sunday Visitor Publishing.