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Obama meets with Pope Francis, exchange gifts and bond over economic inequality

On the last day of his trip to Europe that is part of his foreign policy spring trip, President Barack Obama spent his day on Thursday, March 27, 2014 in Italy where he met for the first time with Pope Francis over a year after he was elected pope. The 52-minute morning meeting included a formal gift giving ceremony and took place in the Papal Library at the Vatican. After his meeting Obama spoke to the press recounting the topics where discussed which included economic inequality, world conflicts in the Middle East and Latin America, empathy and immigration reform.

President Barack Obama with Pope Francis after their meeting in the Vatican, March 27, 2014; Obama and the Pope exchanged gifts and had a meeting in the Papal Library where they discussed common issues such as economic inequality and immigration reform
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

President Obama took along a 10-member delegation to meet the Pope that consisted of "Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and Press Secretary Jay Carney" among other White House advisors, each member of the delegation was officially were "introduced" to Pope Francis in the Small Throne Room.

The actual meeting took place in the Papal Library. The press was only able to witness the formal greetings and gift giving parts that took place before and after the meeting. The President and the Pope spoke through an interpreter, although with the Pope speaking in Spanish, and Obama the president of a country with a large Hispanic population, Obama should have been able to converse in Spanish, but he did not.

President Obama upon meeting the Holy See, expressed; "Wonderful meeting you, I'm a great admirer. Thank you sir, thank you." After they sat down across from each other at a desk in the Papal Library, Obama again expressed to the Pope; "It is a great honor. I'm a great admirer. Thank you so much for receiving me." Obama them mentioned his last visit with a Pope when he met the Pope Emeritus, Pope Benedict XVI in 2009, recounting; "I bring greetings from my family. The last time I came here to meet your predecessor I was able to bring my wife and children."

The official gift giving presentation was held after the end of the meeting. President Obama presented the Pope with a custom made chest, which was constructed out of "American leather and wood from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary," the Baltimore Basilica. The seeds were from the First Lady Michelle Obama's White House vegetable garden to be planted in Summer Papal Palace garden. The chest included an inscription which read; "Presented to His Holiness Pope Francis by Barack Obama President of the United States of America, March 27, 2014." In addition Thomas Jefferson's Monticello Foundation will donate seeds from the third president's vast vegetable garden "to a charity of the Pope's choosing." The seeds will be enough to feed many hungry souls that Pope Francis has advocated for.

In return Pope Francis presented Obama with "two medallions" and a "red letter-bound copy" of the Pope's "apostolic exhortation" Evangeli Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospels) which is about economic inequality. Obama responded that "I will treasure this. 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." To which Pope Francis answered "I hope."

After giving the chest of seeds, President Obama invited the Pope to see the White House garden; "If you have a chance to come to the White House, we can show you our garden as well." Pope Francis answered; "Como no?," in English "Why not." The President also attempted humor, saying; "His Holiness is probably the only person who has to put up with more protocol than me."As Obama departed he thanked the Pope in Spanish, saying; "Muchas gracias," and asked Pope Francis to "Please pray for me and my family. They are with me on this journey."

President Obama explained to the media at his post meeting press conference that during the meeting "the largest bulk of the time was discussing two central concerns of" the Pope's, "One is the issues of the poor, the marginalized, those without opportunity, and growing inequality." Although the pope and Obama have very different views on many issues, they have common ground with economic inequality and immigration reform.

President Obama specifically wanted to discuss economic issues relating to the poor with the Pope especially regarding the need for opportunities. That message is key to Obama's economic opportunity program, which is compromised of four parts; creating good paying jobs, technical job training programs, education initiatives from Pre-K to college, and fair wages including equal pay for equal work and raising the minimum wage.

Obama has shown his admiration for the Pope's views on poverty by quoting him in his speech on economic inequality in December 2013. Obama stated at the time; "Across the developed world, inequality has increased Some of you may have seen just last week, the Pope himself spoke about this at eloquent length. 'How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?'" Obama again mentioned Pope Francis' quote when he spoke to the press, recounting that Pope Francis "discussed in the past I think the dangers of indifference or cynicism when it comes to our ability to reach out to those less fortunate or those locked out of opportunity."

Another important domestic policy issue they discussed was immigration reform, where they both agreed that something needs to be done to help immigrants. Obama pointed out to the press that Pope Francis "as someone who came from Latin America, I think he is very mindful of the plight of so many immigrants who are wonderful people, working hard, making contribution, many of their children are U.S. citizens, and yet they still live in the shadows, in many cases have been deported and are separated from families."

President Obama has been pushing Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill that will allow a path to citizenship for the 13 million illegal immigrants in the country. Obama told the Pope about his efforts, saying; "I described to him how I felt that there was still an opportunity for us to make this right and get a law passed."

There are however, clear divides regarding immigration reform; Republicans at most will support a bill that allows illegal immigrants a chance for legal status, but no path to citizenship. The Republican Congress as Speaker Boehner previously indicated would rather pas immigration through "piece meal" bills than one "comprehensive" legislation. Adding to the divide Boehner claims there is trust issues with the President about enforcing border security and other immigration issues that will probably prevent the passage of any immigration bill this year.

President Obama used the chance to press his own economic opportunity agenda relating it to what he spoke with the Pope about, stating; "we need to come up with policies that provide a good education for every child and good nutrition for every child, and decent shelter and opportunity and jobs -- he is not going to get into details of it, but he reminds us of what our moral and ethical obligations are." Obama also related to revolutions such as that in Ukraine and in Venezuela as a method to avoid them, explaining; "It happens also to be good economics and good national security policy. Countries are more stable, they're going to grow faster when everybody has a chance, not just when a few have a chance."

Despite they shared opinions about the state of inequality and immigration reform Obama told the press that he and the Pope did not enter "into a partnership or a coalition," because "His job is a little more elevated. We're down on the ground dealing with the often profane, and he's dealing with higher powers."

Obama explained that the Holy See's position "is shining a spotlight on an area that's going to be of increasing concern, and that is reduced opportunities for more and more people, particularly young people… and they see the inequality and they see themselves being locked out in ways that weren't true before. And that's true internationally, not just within countries."

The president also discussed with the Pope some of the world conflicts, Obama told the press; "we spent a lot of time talking about the challenges of conflict and how elusive peace is around the world. There was some specific focus on the Middle East where His Holiness has a deep interest in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but also what's happening in Syria, what's happening in Lebanon…. we also touched on regions like Latin America, where there's been tremendous progress in many countries, but there's been less progress in others."

When discussing foreign affairs the Pope was especially concerned about "the potential persecution of Christians," in these conflicts. The president said that he "reaffirmed that it is central to U.S. foreign policy that we protect the interests of religious minorities around the world."

No conversation with the pope would be complete without broaching on religious issues, and what Pope Francis and Obama talked about was empathy. Empathy was common ground between the two, especially in light on the common bond on the issue of economic inequality and opportunity and immigration reform.

President Obama stated that the lack of empathy is what in general leads to the foreign conflicts and the economic inequality that are global problems that the president and the Pope conferred about. Obama clarified; "I think the theme that stitched our conversation together was a belief that in politics and in life the quality of empathy, the ability to stand in somebody else's shoes and to care for someone even if they don't look like you or talk like you or share your philosophy -- that that's critical. It's the lack of empathy that makes it very easy for us to plunge into wars. It's the lack of empathy that allows us to ignore the homeless on the streets."

President Obama has spoken very little about religion and his own personal beliefs while president, but after visiting the Holy See he more shed light on his personal religious beliefs, especially relating to empathy. Obama expressed; "obviously central to my Christian faith is a belief in treating others as I'd have them treat me. And what's I think created so much love and excitement for His Holiness has been that he seems to live this, and shows that joy continuously."

Despite common ground on economic inequality and immigration reform, there is far more Pope Francis and President Obama disagree upon including abortion, the Affordable Care Act forcing religious institutions to offer coverage that includes contraception. Obama however, was spared from discussing those controversial issues with the Pope, and instead spoke with Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin in a "separate meeting" after the one he had with the Holy See.

The president also invited the Pope to visit the United States; "I invited and urged him to come to the United States, telling him that people would be overjoyed to see him." This was the second formal invitation Pope Francis received from the United States government to visit the country, earlier this month for the first anniversary of his election as Pope, Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-OH, and a Catholic sent a letter dated March 13, 2014 formally inviting the Pope to speak at a Joint Session of Congress, which read the Pope has "awakened hearts on every continent." It would be a first, never has a Pope addressed Congress. It is widely believed that Pope Francis plans to attend World Meeting of Families in September 2015 in Philadelphia.

President Obama is looking to capitalize a little from Pope Francis' high approval rating, which sits in the 80s and popularity with all religions not just Catholics. While President Obama has seen his approval ratings tumble and stay stuck in the early 40s with disapproval ratings in the 50s. As Obama told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera about the Pope's influence; "Given his great moral authority, when the Pope speaks it carries enormous weight. 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."

President Obma's visit with the Pope came amidst his weeklong trip to Europe and the Middle East, where on his first stop in the Netherlands President Obama attended the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit on March 24-25 at The Hague, and then he attended the Presidents of the European Council and the European Commission in Belgium on March 26 before heading to Italy where the President completed his four-day European leg of his trip.

Although theses foreign policy summits and conferences were supposed to be the main purpose of the trip, the crisis in Ukraine with Russia's annexation of Crimea and continual military presence along the Ukrainian border overshadowed the trip. Slowly throughout the trip, the appearance of a new cold war has crept up, and isolating and pressuring Russia became the focal point of all meetings with European leaders, and Obama's formal addresses and speeches during the trip. The G7 countries also met on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit and decided to oust Russia from what was the G8 and to cancel the June summit that was to take place in Sochi, Russia and instead have it in Brussels.


Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.

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