Obama meets Pope Francis at the Vatican

First meeting with pontiff comes at end of European tour dominated by Ukraine crisis

Was there a certain chill in the Vatican air? When Pope Francis and US president Barak Obama stood to pose for the cameras in the Vatican Library this morning, it was hard not to notice that one man, Mr Obama, was all smiles and grins whilst his interlocutor, Pope Francis, remained sombre, serious and impassive.

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

Curiously, however, this had seemed to be a very successful visit. For a start, the two men had a 50-minute meeting in the Apostolic Library, an unusually long encounter which would suggest at the very least that they had plenty to say to one another.

For a second, the day had begun on an auspicious note with an interview in Milan daily, Corriere Della Sera, in which the US president was full of praise for Francis, calling him a “great moral authority” whose words carry “enormous weight”.

He added: “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.”

Mr Obama also suggested that, even if he did not agree with everything that Pope Francis said, he nonetheless had great respect for the pope’s “courage” when it came to addressing “the great social and economic issues of our time”.

“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.”

When he was greeted by the pope in the Apostolic Library in the papal palace, Mr Obama more than once said how glad he was to be there, thanking the pope for receiving him.

“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.”

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

Furthermore, they are likely to share the same concerns and worries about major international issues such as the civil war in Syria, the Russia-Ukraine crisis over Crimea and any number of conflagrations in African. The sweetness and light, however, may have ended when Pope Francis questioned the president about his healthcare policies, about US abortion services and also about the president's public approval for same-sex marriage.

You would also have to concede that the two men are certainly not on the same page when it comes to their transport arrangements.

Whilst Francis likes to use an ordinary Ford Focus or indeed the Vatican bus when he moves outside the Holy See, the US president turned up for his audience with the classic 50 car strong motorcade that may well meet security requirements but which, frankly, borders on the ridiculous.

Mr Obama, who was accompanied today by secretary of state John Kerry, was making his second official visit to the Vatican following a meeting with Pope Benedict in 2009.

Mr Obama is just the last in a long line of US presidents, starting with Woodrow Wilson just after the first World War and including Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush senior and junior and Bill Clinton who have all met with the pope of the day, nearly always in the Vatican.

PA

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