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Tuesday 2 September 2014

Obama focuses on Francis agreements

Published 27/03/2014 | 09:57

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Pope Francis and US President Barack Obama exchange gifts at the Vatican (AP)
US President Barack Obama meets Pope Francis at the Vatican (AP)

President Barack Obama has said his meeting with Pope Francis focused on their agreements, not their divisions.

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Mr Obama said the bulk of their nearly hour-long talk focused on the pope's concerns about income inequality and conflict around the world.

The president said they also discussed immigration reform but he said the pope only briefly mentioned church objections to a birth control mandate under his healthcare law.

Mr Obama said he discussed the Affordable Care Act requirement more later in a meeting with the Vatican secretary of state.

A statement from the Vatican focuses more on areas of dispute, saying topics discussed included abortion and contraception, without mentioning income inequality.

Mr Obama spoke at a news conference with Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi in Rome.

Contraception coverage and religious freedom have been central to the church's objections to Mr Obama's healthcare law, which is facing a challenge on those grounds before the Supreme Court.

But Mr Obama said those discussions took place with the Vatican secretary of state Pietro Parolin, not with Francis. "We actually didn't talk a whole lot about social schisms in my conversations with His Holiness," he added. "In fact, that really was not a topic of conversation."

"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," Mr Obama said later during the news conference. "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 marked difference in emphasis introduced a perplexing element to the long-anticipated meeting, which the White House has looked forward to as way to validate Mr Obama's economic policies. In a report on Vatican Radio the day before the meeting, the Vatican had signalled that the divisive issues would indeed be on the agenda.

Obama emerged visibly energised from his audience with the pope, during which he invited Francis to visit the White House.

"It is a great honour. I'm a great admirer," Mr Obama said after greeting the pope with a slight bow as they shook hands. "Thank you so much for receiving me."

Although Mr Obama and the church remain deeply split over social issues, Mr Obama considers the pontiff a kindred spirit on issues of inequality, and their private meeting in the Papal Library ran longer than scheduled.

After they emerged to cameras, Francis presented Mr Obama with a copy of his papal mission statement decrying a global economic system that excludes the poor. Mr Obama said he would keep it at the White House.

"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," Mr Obama said.

"I hope," the pope responded.

Mr Obama is the ninth president to make an official visit to the Vatican. His audience marked a change of pace for the president, who had devoted the past three days of a week-long, four-country trip to securing European unity against Russia's aggressive posture toward Ukraine.

The president and pope both appeared tense at the start of the audience, when they initially greeted one another, but they were all smiles by the end of the meeting and seemed to have found a rapport, though they spoke through interpreters.

Later, Mr Obama recalled the meeting as an elevated discussion about the role of empathy in public and private life.

"It's the lack of empathy that makes it very easy for us to plunge to wars," he said. "It's the lack of empathy that allows us to ignore the homeless on the streets."

But he also said that while he shared the pope's economic views, he did not expect Francis to form a coalition or partnership with him on any issue.

"His job is a little more elevated," Mr Obama said with a chuckle. "We're down on the ground, dealing with the often profane, and he's dealing with higher powers."

Mr 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 two greeted one another in the Small Throne Room, before sitting across from one another at the pope's desk, as is custom for a papal audience.

Mr Obama presented the pope with a seed chest with fruit and vegetable seeds used in the White House garden, mentioning that he understands the pope is opening the gardens at the papal summer residence to the public.

T he 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 US.

"If you have a chance to come to the White House, we can show you our garden as well," Mr 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.

House Speaker John Boehner has extended an invitation to the pope to address Congress when he visits the United States.

As Mr Obama departed, he asked the pope, "Please pray for me and my family."

It was an echo of how Francis usually ends his meetings, asking for people to pray for him.

Press Association

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