President Barack Obama gave Pope Francis a box of seeds as a gift, a fitting token as their first-ever meeting provided a fresh start of sorts between the administration and Catholic leadership after years of strained relations. “These, I think, are carrots,” Obama told the Pontiff, showing him a pouch from the box, which was made from timber from the first cathedral to open in the United States, in Baltimore.
The Pope gave the President two medallions — one symbolizing the need for peace and solidarity between the two hemispheres — and a copy of “Evangelii Gaudium,” or “The Joy of the Gospel.” The book was penned by the Pope and calls for a new era of evangelization and a renewed focus on the poor. The tokens of goodwill underscored the goal of the meeting: Focus on areas where two of the world’s most influential men agree, and gently tread ground where they differ.
The two men greeted each other with a smile and a handshake and posed for pictures before sitting down across a table from each other. They spoke privately for nearly an hour. When they emerged from the meeting, the President and the Vatican had slightly different takes on the tenor of their discussions, especially when it came to issues that have frayed the relationship between the Obama administration and American Catholic leaders.
“… (I)t was hoped that, in areas of conflict, there would be respect for humanitarian and international law and a negotiated solution between the parties involved,” the Vatican said in a statement. “In the context of bilateral relations and cooperation between Church and State, there was a discussion 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. …”
Obama, in a news conference that followed, told reporters that such issues were “not a topic of conversation” with the Pope and instead were discussed with Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin. According to the Vatican, the two men also discussed the issue of immigration reform and “stated their common commitment to the eradication of human trafficking throughout the world.”
On this point, the President and the Pope were simpatico. “I was grateful to have the opportunity to speak with him about the responsibilities that we all share to care for the least of these, the poor, the excluded,” Obama told reporters after the meeting. “And I was extremely moved by his insights about the importance of us all having a moral perspective on world problems and not simply thinking in terms of our own narrow self-interests.”
The meeting took place two days after the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on a contraception mandate included in the President’s signature health care reform law. The law exempts churches and houses of worship from the requirement, but nonprofit, religiously affiliated groups are required either to provide contraception coverage to their employees directly or through a third-party insurer.