Mr. Obama enthusiastically greeted the Pontiff saying, “Wonderful meeting you. It is a great honor. I’m a great admirer. Thank you so much for receiving me.”
This was the first meeting between the two men. President Obama met with Pope Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, on a prior visit to the Vatican.
The main focus of this visit was to explore both the Pope’s and President’s desire to change the economic fortunes of the working class and the poor.
According to White House officials President Obama presented the Pontiff with a custom-made seed chest featuring fruit and vegetable seeds used in the White House Garden. The chest was made from reclaimed wood from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore, MD.
Mr. Obama, holding a pouch containing some of the White House seeds said, “These, I think, are carrots. 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.” He added, “If you have a chance to come to the White House, we can show you our garden as well.”
Gift exchanges between the Pope and visiting heads of state are a long-established Vatican tradition. Pope Francis gave President Obama two medallions, one symbolizing the need for solidarity and peace between the northern and southern hemispheres.
Mr. Obama was also presented with a copy of “Evangelii Gaudium,” or “The Joy of the Gospel,” a book Pope Francis released last November inspiring an era of evangelization and renewing focus on the world’s poor.
“I will treasure this. 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.” Mr. Obama said.
The two men sat down at the Pope’s simple desk in the papal library for their 52-minute meeting.
Pope Francis made clear his feelings that wealth and income inequality is a moral issue and needs priority attention, criticizing society's idolatry of money. President Obama, himself an advocate for economic equality, recognizes inequality is a growing issue internationally.
The President, admiring the Pope's courage to speak out on economic and social issues said to Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, "It doesn't mean we agree on every issue, but his voice is one that I think the world needs to hear. He challenges us. He implores us to remember the people, especially the poor, who are affected by the economic decisions we make."
In communiqué released after the meeting (listen to radio broadcast here), the Vatican described the meeting between President Obama and Pope Francis as cordial. According to the statement the discussions touched on current international themes, expressing hope for respect for humanitarian and international law in areas of conflict. Immigration reform was also discussed, both sides sharing common ground in fighting human trafficking.
The Vatican statement also alluded to the ongoing dispute between American bishops and the Obama administration over provisions of the Affordable Care Act, specifically the mandate that for-profit corporations must provide contraception coverage in health care plans. The American bishops argue this mandate is a violation of religious freedom.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments challenging the constitutionality of this mandate in the Hobby Lobby case.