Ideological differences over abortion and birth control were among the topics raised as US President Barack Obama met Pope Francis for the first time at the Vatican on Thursday, although common ground was sought on issues like economic inequality.
The Vatican issued a statement after Obama’s hour-long audience with the pope saying that discussions centred on questions of “particular relevance for the church in that country, such as the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection”, including the right of US doctors to refuse to perform abortions.
Pope Francis faithfully backs church teaching on abortion, but his chosen emphasis tends to lie elsewhere. He has said he wants his church to be more of a welcoming place for wounded souls rather than rely on moralising.
The Vatican said immigration reform was also discussed, an issue on which Obama has largely enjoyed the support of America’s Hispanic community, most of them Catholic. But the Holy See did not specify whether those issues came up directly with Pope Francis or in a subsequent meeting with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin.
Upon meeting the pope, Obama expressed his great admiration and invited him to visit the White House.
“It is a great honour. I’m a great admirer,” Obama said, greeting the pope with a slight bow as they shook hands. “Thank you so much for receiving me.”
Although Obama and the church remain deeply split over social issues, Obama considers the pontiff a kindred spirit on issues of poverty and inequality, and their private meeting in the Papal Library ran longer than scheduled.
After they emerged in front of the cameras, Pope Francis presented Obama with a copy of his papal mission statement decrying a global economic system that excludes the poor. Obama said he will keep it in the Oval Office.
“You know, I actually will probably read this when I’m in the Oval Office, when I am deeply frustrated, and I am sure it will give me strength and will calm me down,” Obama said.
“I hope,” the pope responded.
‘Rethinking old attitudes’
Obama arrived at the Vatican amid all the pomp and tradition of the Catholic Church, making his way in a long, slow procession through the hallways of the Apostolic Palace led by colourful Swiss Guards and accompanied by ceremonial attendants. The president shook hands with the pontiff in the Small Throne Room before the two sat down at the pope’s desk, as is custom for a papal audience.
Obama presented the pope with a seed chest filled with fruit and vegetable seeds used in the White House garden. The chest was inscribed with the date of their meeting and custom made of leather and reclaimed wood from the Baltimore Basilica – one of the oldest Catholic cathedrals in the United States.
“If you have a chance to come to the White House, we can show you our garden as well,” Obama said.
“Why not?” the pope responded in his native Spanish.
Although the Vatican has not yet confirmed the trip, it is likely that Francis will travel to the US in September 2015 for the church’s World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. Popes have attended these family celebrations five of the past seven times they have been held, and Francis has put family issues at the forefront of his agenda.
As Obama departed, he said to the pope, “Muchas gracias.” Then in English he added: “Please pray for me and my family.”
“Given his great moral authority, when the pope speaks it carries enormous weight,” Obama said in an interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera published ahead of his papal visit. “He can cause people around to the world to stop and perhaps rethink old attitudes and begin treating one another with more decency and compassion.”
After leaving the Vatican midday, Obama made his way to Rome’s Quirinal Palace for a series of meetings with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
Obama is the ninth president to make an official visit to the Vatican. His audience marks a change of pace for the president, who is on a weeklong, four-nation trip aimed at boosting European unity against Russia’s aggressive stance on Ukraine.
(FRANCE 24 with AP)
Date created : 2014-03-27