Pope Francis and President Obama met for the first time today at the Vatican. As the AP reported, both men seemed somewhat nervous and uncertain as they embraced and exchanged pleasantries, but grew more comfortable over time after sitting down and speaking through interpreters in the Papal Library.
Shortly thereafter, the two world leaders spoke privately for roughly 50 minutes behind-closed-doors, which, according to ABC News, was a lot longer than both parties had anticipated:
The two world leaders also exchanged more than just words; they exchanged gifts:
Obama presented Francis with a custom-made seed chest featuring a variety of fruit and vegetable seeds used in the White House's garden. "These I think are carrots," he 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."
The pope gave the president an encyclical. "I actually will probably read this in the Oval Office when I'm deeply frustrated. I'm sure it will give me strength and calm me down," the president said smiling.
While both gifts were thoughtful and appreciated, there was a slight interruption during the presentation ceremony:
In a brief departure from all the formality, the metal support stilts being used to prop up the gifts repeatedly gave way, causing an audible crash that drew the consternation of the Vatican's protocol monsignors and a look from Obama. Eventually, aides gave up on using the stilts.
Addressing income inequality and ending poverty are issues both leaders have emphasized repeatedly. “Wonderful meeting you, I’m a great admirer,” the president said when they finally sat down together. However, they don’t see eye-to-eye on many social issues, including abortion, same-sex marriage, and the HHS contraception mandate that was debated at the Supreme Court earlier this week. I imagine these topics were discussed -- and indeed they were -- although the true nature of their conversation is unknown at this point. Nevertheless, based on what the president told an Italian newspaper before entering the Vatican, it’s clear he has nothing but respect and hope for the 266th Bishop of Rome:
"Given his great moral authority, when the pope speaks, it carries enormous weight," Obama told Corriere della Sera. "He doesn’t just proclaim the Gospel, he lives it. 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."
Pope Francis is very popular with the American electorate. Thus, the president’s papal visit couldn’t come at a better time for him given his ever-sinking poll numbers. Perhaps he’ll even benefit from the Pope’s popularity.
After all, I'm sure that's what he's hoping for.