VATICAN CITY — A man without a church went to the cradle of the Roman Catholic Church Friday, as President Barack Obama met Pope Benedict XVI face to face for the first time and concluded their meeting with a request that the Holy Father pray for him and his family.
Obama spent a half hour meeting one on one with the spiritual leader of the world’s Roman Catholics, discussing hotspots around the world, talking about issues such as poverty where they agree and issues such as abortion where they disagree.
He walked away with homework — the Pope’s new encyclical on poverty as well as a document of church teaching on bioethics.
And though he is not Catholic — Obama quit the Trinity United Church of Christ when his pastor proved too controversial during the presidential campaign and has not yet joined another church — he said he walked away warmed by the audience and grateful that his wife, daughters and mother-in-law all had a chance to meet the pope.
“The president was very touched by the visit, very moved both by the office and by the pope himself, and very hopeful that they can continue to work together,” said Denis McDonough, deputy national security adviser for strategic communication.
“He was very impressed and touched by the office of the Holy Father but also by the breadth of issues that they discussed…including those on which they did not agree but on which it was clear that they both felt very strongly.”
Obama and Benedict spent a half hour meeting one on one, discussing the Middle East, efforts to reach out the Muslim world, and violence in Honduras and immigration.
They also had what McDonough called an “extensive” discussion about bioethics and abortion, a key area of disagreement. Obama supports abortion rights and medical research using stem cells from human embryos; the church opposes both.
The Vatican gave Obama a document entitled "An Instruction on Certain Bioethical Questions," prepared by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, White House aides said.
“He looks forward to reading it,” McDonough said. But he did not suggest that Obama might change his mind.
“At the end of the day, it may just be that there's issues that they can't come to agreement on, but I think he believes that you can be -- that you can disagree without being disagreeable,” McDonough said.
Obama concluded the meeting by hand delivering a letter from Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who is suffering from cancer. He asked the pope to pray for Kennedy, who is Roman Catholic and whose brother was the first and only Catholic ever elected president of the U.S. Obama later spoke with Kennedy by phone as Air Force One departed Italy for Ghana.
Obama also told aides he was impressed by the grandeur and art of the Vatican, though he did not get to see the Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica or his frescoed ceilings in the Sistine Chapel, among the many art treasures in the small city.
“The president was moved by the opportunity to visit and to see it,” McDonough said of the Vatican City. “I think his only wish (was) that he had a little bit more time to see some of the beautiful stuff there.”
Obama earlier met with the Vatican’s Secretary of State, discussing other issues including the status of Cuba and the recent coup in Honduras. On the coup in Honduras, McDonough said Obama expressed his “particular appreciation” for Cardinal Oscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Tegucigalpa who “has been playing a very critical role in the ongoing crisis there” by continuing to urge all sides to restrain from violence.
The pope and president also exchanged gifts.
Obama gave Benedict a stole that had been placed on the remains of St. John Neumann, the first male naturalized U.S. citizen to become a saint.
The pope gave the president a mosaic representing Saint Peter's square, a medal, and an autographed leather-bound copy of his new encyclical released this week on poverty, "caritas in veritate,” or charity in truth.
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