Obama meets Pope Francis for first time

US president speaks of how pontiff is an inspiration to him and rest of world

President Obama is accompanied by the technical director of the Colosseum, Barbara Nazzaro as he is given a tour yesterday. Photograph: Ettore Ferrari/EPA

President Obama is accompanied by the technical director of the Colosseum, Barbara Nazzaro as he is given a tour yesterday. Photograph: Ettore Ferrari/EPA

Fri, Mar 28, 2014, 11:56




Perhaps it was because he had begun the day with a Mass for Italian politicians but there was the suspicion yesterday that when Pope Francis received US president Barak Obama in a papal audience, there was a certain chill in the air.

The pope had used some strong language when speaking to the Italian politicians, He told them they had become so corrupt and hard of heart they did not know how to ask for forgiveness.

So, when Pope Francis and Mr Obama posed for the cameras in the Vatican Library, the president was all smiles but his interlocutor remained sombre, serious and impassive.


Body language
Reading the Vatican tea leaves can be an overrated sport and it may well be that the different body language from both men meant relatively little, but it did not look that way.

It was also significant that the official Vatican communique about yesterday’s audience for Mr Obama made reference to co-operation between church and state and to a “discussion on questions of particular relevance for the church in that country”.

Perhaps they were discussing issues such as healthcare policies, family planning and provision for abortion, not to mention same-sex marriage.

The two men did a lot of talking, given that their meeting in the Apostolic Library lasted 50 minutes. Normally, such meetings last 20 minutes but clearly the world’s best-known spiritual leader and its best-known politician had a lot of things to say to each other, even if they required an interpreter for the purpose.

As he sat down for his chat, Mr Obama thanked the pope for receiving him in audience and told him how glad he was to be there.

“It’s a great honour to be here. Thank you for receiving me . . . I bring greetings from my family. The last time, I brought my family with me.”


Moral authority
That greeting echoed comments made yesterday by the president in an interview in Milan daily Corriere della Sera , in which he called Francis a “great moral authority”.

“The Holy Father has inspired me and people all over the world with his strong commitment to social justice and with his message of love and compassion, particularly for those among us who are poor and vulnerable. He does not just preach the Gospel, he lives it. We have all been struck and moved by his humility and his acts of compassion . . .

“I am convinced that his is a voice to which the whole world should listen. He challenges us. He calls on us to think of those people, especially those less well off, whose lives are conditioned by the decisions we take . . . ”

All of that sounds as if the two men were on the same page, or at least close to it.

Furthermore, they are likely to share the same concerns and worries about the major international issues that were discussed yesterday, including the civil war in Syria and the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis over Crimea.

The visit with Pope Francis was not the only stop on Mr Obama’s busy day in Rome yesterday. He also found time to meet Italian president Giorgio Napolitano and newly installed Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi.


Colosseum tour
In addition to that, the US president was given a private tour of the Colosseum at the end of his day.

Mr Obama was the ninth US president to be granted a Vatican audience since Woodrow Wilson broke the ice at the end of the first World War.