(Photo: Reuters/Gabriel Bouys/Pool)
U.S. President Barack Obama met Pope Francis on Thursday at the Vatican, with reports stating that the world leaders held a 50-minute private talk.
"It is a great honor. I'm a great admirer," Obama told the Roman Catholic leader upon meeting him. "Thank you so much for receiving me." It was the first such meeting between the two leaders and their 50-minute conversation was considered an "extraordinarily long time," Catholic News Service reported.
Obama said that while the two had a "wide-ranging discussion," they focused on two concerns that the pope had: the poor and growing inequality, and conflict around the world.
"[T]hose of us as politicians have the task of trying to come up with policies to address issues, but His Holiness has the capacity to open people's eyes and make sure they're seeing that this is an issue," Obama told the media afterward. "And he's 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."
Obama has often praised Pope Francis for his commitment to the poor and for speaking out against the world's economic system, which the Vatican leader has blamed for creating inequality and injustice.
During their talk on Israel, Syria and the persecution of Christians, Obama said he "reaffirmed that it is central to U.S. foreign policy that we protect the interests of religious minorities around the world."
On whether they addressed Catholic concerns about the Affordable Care Act's mandate requiring employers to cover contraception in employees' health insurance plans, Obama said, "He (pope) actually did not touch in detail on the Affordable Care Act." But Obama said he did discuss the issue briefly with the Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who expressed concerns about religious freedom.
"I explained to him that most religious organizations are entirely exempt," Obama explained. "Religiously affiliated hospitals or universities or NGOs simply have to attest that they have a religious objection, in which case they are not required to provide contraception although … employees of theirs who choose are able to obtain it through the insurance company.
"And I pledged to continue to dialogue with the U.S. Conference of Bishops to make sure that we can strike the right balance, making sure that not only everybody has healthcare but families, and women in particular, are able to enjoy the kind of healthcare coverage that the AC offers, but that religious freedom is still observed."
According to Reuters, Obama invited Francis to visit the White House, and gave him of gift of seeds of fruit and vegetables from the garden of the presidential residence.
"If you have a chance, you can come to the White House and you can see the garden," Obama said. He also joked that "His Holiness is the only person who has to put up with more protocol than me."
The Vatican leader in turn gave Obama two commemorative medals, and a copy of his Evangeli Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospels) work.
"You know, I will probably read this in the Oval Office when I am deeply frustrated and I am sure that it will give me strength and calm me down," the U.S. president said, to which Francis responded in English: "I hope."
At the end of the meeting, Obama asked Francis to pray for his family.
"My family has to be with me on this journey. They've been very strong. Pray for them. I would appreciate it," the U.S. president said.
Vatican Radio added that Secretary of State John Kerry also accompanied the president, and met with his Holy See counterpart, Cardinal Pietro Parolin. U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Kenneth Hackett was also present.
Obama's visit to the Vatican comes during a six-day international trip, which included a visit with European Union and NATO officials in Brussels, where they discussed responses to Russia annexing the Ukrainian territory of Crimea earlier in March.