VATICAN CITY — 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, to shine a light on 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.”
The statement noted that the discussions -- which also included a meeting with the church’s Secretary of State -- included 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.
The statement noted the two had also discussed immigration and a “common commitment to the eradication of human trafficking.”
The statement from the Vatican Information Service did not mention Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, but noted that globally, “hope was expressed that, in areas of conflict, there would be respect for humanitarian and international law and a negotiated solution.”
Outwardly, the meeting appeared warm. Obama was greeted by Francis outside the Papal Library, in the Small Throne Room as he arrived for an audience with the man he told an Italian newspaper is an “inspiration to people around the world.” They walked toward each other and stretched out their hands in a 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.
Once the meeting ended, the two exchanged gifts -- and a few laughs, as Obama invited the pontiff to the White House. 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."
Francis earlier this month made the historic announcement that he would open to the public the gardens of the papal summer residence, the Apostolic Palace of Castel Gandolfo, the White House said.
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 built in the United States.
The Basilica’s cornerstone was laid by John Carroll, a Jesuit and the first Catholic bishop and archbishop in the United States. The Cathedral was designed by Benjamin Latrobe, who was selected by President Thomas Jefferson to serve as an Architect of the Capitol, and played a pivotal role in its design and construction.
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.”
In keeping with the spirit of the gift, Thomas Jefferson's Monticello will donate seeds that will yield several tons of produce to a charity of Pope Francis’ choosing.
The pope presented Obama president 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," prompting Obama to say he would read it in the Oval Office when he needs a lift. It is a 2013 apostolic exhortation by Francis that called a new era evangelization and 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," the president said smiling.
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.”
Before the meeting, Obama walked through the center of Clementine Hall, a large ante-room on the way where he was to meet with Francis. He proceeded past a dozen members of the Swiss Guard, standing at attention in their traditional purple and gold-striped uniforms with bright red feather plumes atop their gold helmets. The uniforms were designed by Michelangelo.
Obama was escorted by Archbishop Georg Gansewein. Behind him was Secretary of State John Kerry. Further behind were several members of the White House staff, including National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Press Secretary Jay Carney, deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes and Alyssa Mastromanaco. Both women wore mantilla -- shoulder length head scarves.