IT WAS pitched as an encounter between the two most iconic figures on the world stage, and the meeting between Pope Francis and US president Barack Obama did not disappoint.
But those expecting the pontiff “from the end of the world” and the US’s first black president to simply swap notes on their shared battle for equality were left disappointed, as the Vatican showed its disapproval over Mr Obama’s pro-abortion and pro-contraception policies.
At 10:30am, Mr Obama was led by a procession of Swiss Guards down the Vatican’s frescoed corridors to his meeting with Francis, whom he described as “an inspiration to people around the world, including me”, in an interview with an Italian newspaper.
“It is a great honour. I’m a great admirer,” he told the Pope, before they kicked off a 52-minute meeting, longer than the planned half hour and far longer than most world leaders get at the Vatican.
Critics claimed Mr Obama was hoping some of the charismatic glow around the unorthodox Argentinian Pope would rub off on him, citing recent polls showing Francis’s popularity in the US at 63 per cent, compared with Mr Obama’s 41 per cent.
But a short Vatican statement issued after the meeting dwelt in part on their differences, saying discussions had covered “the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection” in the US.
If the reference to “life” signalled opposition to Mr Obama’s pro-abortion stand, defending “religious freedom” referred to his 2010 healthcare law, which compels businesses to cover contraception costs in their health insurance spending.
Opposed by Catholic groups in the US, “Obamacare” has met with a barrage of lawsuits and this week the US Supreme Court appeared to be on the verge of backing the law’s opponents and allowing them to duck payments for contraception on religious grounds.
As they emerged from their meeting, Francis gave the president a copy of his recent apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, which denounces abortion as well as trickle-down economic theories – widely subscribed to in the US – which the Pope claims generate inequality not wealth.
“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,” replied Francis.
At a press conference later, the president put a different spin on the encounter, saying it focused on his common ground with Francis, rather than differences.
Most of their meeting was devoted to Francis’s fears about growing income inequality and global conflicts, he said, adding the Pope had mentioned Obamacare only briefly, although he said he did discuss it in a follow-up meeting with Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Pietro Parolin.
Despite their differences, Mr Obama and the Pope appeared to relax when it came to handing over gifts, despite one nearly crashing to the floor. A metal support holding up a chest of seeds for Francis from the White House garden fell twice to the floor when photographers knocked the table holding it.
As he pulled a pouch of seeds from the chest, Mr Obama said, “These, I think, are carrots,” adding, “If you have a chance to come to the White House, we can show you our garden as well.”
“Why not?” the Pope replied in his native Spanish.
A White House visit could coincide with Francis’s possible trip to Philadelphia next year for the Catholic Church’s World Meeting of Families.
Adding to the upbeat mood, Mr Obama observed papal officials milling around as he left and joked: “His Holiness is probably the only person in the world who has to put up with more protocol than me.”