Obama tells Pope Francis he is a “great admirer”

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VATICAN CITY (AP) - President Barack Obama called himself a “great admirer” of Pope Francis as he sat down at the Vatican Thursday with the pontiff he considers a kindred spirit on issues of economic inequality. Their historic nearly hourlong first meeting comes as Obama’s administration and the church remain deeply split on issues of abortion and contraception.

Obama arrived at the Vatican amid the pomp and tradition of the Catholic Church, making his way to greet the pope after a long, slow procession through the hallways of the Apostolic Palace led by colorful Swiss Guards and accompanied by ceremonial attendants. The president bowed as he shook hands with the pontiff in the Small Throne Room, before the two sat down at a wooden table in the Papal Library.

“It is a great honor. I’m a great admirer,” a broadly grinning Obama said. “Thank you so much for receiving me.”

The two were scheduled to meet for half an hour, but their private discussion lasted 52 minutes. Obama seem buoyed by the meeting as they emerged and the pope greeted a handful of Obama’s senior advisers. Catholic Secretary of State John Kerry pronounced himself “a great admirer of everything you’ve been doing, as a Catholic, for the church.”

Obama then presented the pope with a seed chest with fruit and vegetable seeds used in the White House Garden, in honor of the pope’s announcement earlier this year that he’s opening the gardens of the papal summer residence to the public. The chest was custom-made of leather and reclaimed wood from the Baltimore Basilica, one of the oldest Catholic cathedrals in the U.S, and inscribed with the date of their meeting.

As they meet, the six-year president, with his sinking poll numbers, would not be blamed for seeking some reflected glory from a pope who, one year into his pontificate, is viewed as an agent of change in the Roman Catholic Church.

Obama is the ninth president to make an official visit to the Vatican. His audience marks a change of pace for the president, who has devoted the past three days of a weeklong, four-country trip to securing European unity against Russia’s aggressive posture toward Ukraine.

The pope whom Obama will sit with this time is a different pontiff than the last one to host him. Obama visited Pope Benedict XVI in 2009, a cordial meeting that nevertheless drew attention to the differences between the church and Obama on abortion.

To be sure, the relationship between the Obama administration and the Catholic Church is a fraught one. And Vatican officials say Obama will not leave without having heard Francis’ views on Obama’s health care law and its mandates for contraception coverage. But in Francis, the White House sees the popular pope and his emphasis on economic disparity as a form of moral validation of the president’s economic agenda.

“Given his great moral authority, when the pope speaks it carries enormous weight,” Obama said in an interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera published ahead of his papal visit. “He can cause people around to the world to stop and perhaps rethink old attitudes and begin treating one another with more decency and compassion.”

Several presidents have found allies if not comfort in the pope.

President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II famously shared an antipathy for the former Soviet Union, Reagan the Cold War warrior and the pope a Polish priest who fought communism in his country and later in Europe.

“Sometimes in these meetings there are compatible personalities,” said Paul Begala, a former aide to President Bill Clinton and a Catholic himself. He recalled being with Clinton when the president met John Paul II in Denver.

“They were only supposed to meet alone for five minutes,” he said in an interview earlier this year. “Those two gregarious, charismatic men sat in that room for an hour without another soul in there.”

The Obama-Francis chemistry remains to be seen, but thematically both seem to be on some of the same pages.

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