The White House says President Barack Obama is looking forward to talking with Pope Francis today about their “shared commitment” to the widening gap between rich and poor.
Vatican watchers say it’s likely to be a wide ranging conversation -- conducted with interpreters. Immigration is likely to be discussed, with the visit coming as Obama, under fire from advocacy groups for his administration’s record rate of deportations, has pledged to review U.S. immigration policies to make them more "humane."
Francis has championed the plight of migrants, urging the world last fall to welcome refugees and not treat them as "pawns on the chessboard of humanity."
His first visit outside Rome was to the tiny Italian island, Lampedusa, where he held a Mass to call attention to migrants crossing from Africa who have drowned on its shores, trying to reach Europe.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who met at the Vatican in January with his counterpart, Secretary of State of the Holy See Pietro Parolin to prepare for the visit, suggested it will cover a number of global issues, including the ongoing conflict in Syria, in which Francis last fall urged world leaders to oppose Obama’s call for a military strike.
Kerry said Parolin also had asked for a "solid briefing" on the Middle East peace process, as Francis will be going to Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan in May.
The U.S.’s frosty relations with Cuba could also be a point of discussion: Kerry raised the issue of Alan Gross, an American contractor jailed in Cuba since 2009 and said he’s asked the Vatican to help push for his release.
“The president, I think like many people around the world, has been inspired by the first year that Pope Francis has had,” White House deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters en route to Rome, adding Obama has been struck “by the way in which he has motivated people around the world by his message of inclusion, of equality, which has deep meaning for people both of the Catholic faith, but people of different faiths all over the world.”
Rhodes said the meeting was an opportunity for them to meet, “for the president to hear from the Pope about what he is trying to do around the world, and really for the president to express his appreciation for the Pope’s leadership on a range of challenges that he has highlighted in his first year.”
Various advocacy groups are looking to the meeting to raise the profile and spark action on a host of issues. Environmentalists have urged Obama to talk about climate change and invite Pope Francis to visit a national park; Human Rights First and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights are asking Obama to raise lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues during his visit, saying it’s an opportunity to "lay down a marker on the universal value of human dignity."
Obama will meet with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin after his meeting with Francis.
He’ll also meet with Italian President Napolitano and Prime Minister Renzi, with whom he’ll hold a press conference. He will also tour The Colosseum.