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Obama And Pope Meet For First Time At The Vatican


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm David Greene. Good morning. President Obama has wrapped up a meeting in Vatican City with Pope Francis, the man who in just one year has become the world's spiritual superstar. Now, the elections of both men made history, Barack Obama as the first African-American president, and the Argentine-born Jorge Bergoglio became the first non-European pope in centuries.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins us now to talk about what these two men share and where they disagree. Sylvia, good morning.


GREENE: So first, tell us what we know so far about this meeting that has wrapped up. I know atmospherics are always a big part of meetings like this.

BYLINE: Absolutely. We were given live coverage by Vatican TV and we saw President Obama and his delegation arrive in a very slow procession along these marble floored halls, frescoed ceilings. He was accompanied by the ceremonial Swiss guard. At the pope's study Pope Francis came out. They shook hands. And it seemed like a very warm encounter. They met privately together with just two interpreters for 52 minutes, and then at the end of that meeting there was the exchange of gifts, and that's what we were able to see and hear some of the banter.

President Obama gave as a gift a wooden chest with seeds from the White House garden, and this is in honor of the pope who announced recently that the papal summer residence will be open to the public and probably the idea is to create a vegetable garden there too.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: For his part, the pope gave two bronze medals and a copy of his apostolic exhortation he wrote a few months ago called "The Joy of the Gospel." And here President Obama said, you know, actually I'll read this probably in the Oval Office when I'm deeply frustrated and I know it will give me strength and calm me down. The pope replied: I hope. Now, we don't know whether President Obama knows it is in that document that Pope Francis makes some of this toughest criticism of the let's say Western economic system and financial markets. So in any case, if he reads it, he'll find out what the pope's position is on that.

GREENE: Well, you know, economic justice is something that the pope has certainly talked a lot about. President Obama has talked a lot about economic justice. But there are some differences in their approach that are worth noting.

POGGIOLI: Well, absolutely. I think one of the most interesting aspects of Pope Francis is that he comes from what's called the Global South. His view of the Western economic system is very, very critical. It reflects very much the view that's prevalent in Latin America. He wrote in that exhortation disdainfully about trickle down economic theories and unfettered markets and what he called a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power. There's no question that on this issue Francis has shifted the social justice focus of the church to the left and it will be interesting to see whether the pope feels the Obama administration has done enough in this direction. For his part, the president has repeatedly praised Francis for his emphasis on helping the poor, and if they hit it off, the pope may prove a crucial ally in helping promote some of the Obama administration's initiatives, such as raising the minimum wage and giving a boost to the middle class.

GREENE: Sylvia, one place where these two men disagree - I mean the U.S. bishops have strongly criticized the administration when it comes to the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act. I mean do we know yet if the pope might have raised this sensitive issue during the meeting?

POGGIOLI: We do not know that. Very probably he did, because it is a Vatican policy to show support for local bishops with their governments. It was an issue that was raised definitely when Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with the new Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Perolin in January. The Vatican statement said that they had raised the Holy See's concern shared by U.S. bishops about this issue.

The only thing we can say is that so far the pope has made a shift in tone and emphasis, the major novelty of his papacy. We'll have to see how forcefully it was raised, that that will be the test of whether Pope Francis wants to really push and support the bishops or he wants to take a softer approach on this.

GREENE: All right, Syliva, thanks very much.

POGGIOLI: Thank you.

GREENE: That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli talking to us about the meeting between President Obama and Pope Francis. We'll be learning much more about that meeting as the day goes on, and Syliva will be reporting later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.