ROME — President Obama and Pope Francis met for the first time Thursday in a discussion that was expected to focus on shared priorities including poverty, conflict and religious freedom.
Obama also invited Francis to visit the U.S. next year.
The meeting was widely expected to be a cordial occasion, but it was also thought that Francis could bring up some more prickly issues, such as the mandate that the Affordable Care Act cover sterilization, contraception, and abortion, and the growing trend in the U.S. to legalize gay marriages — all areas the church frowns upon.
"I bring greetings from my family," the president said to the Pope as the meeting got underway. "The last time I came here to meet your predecessor I was able to bring my wife and children."
Obama presented Francis with a custom-made seed chest featuring a variety of fruit and vegetable seeds used in the White House's garden. "These I think are carrots," he said, holding a pouch. "Each one has a different seed in it. The box is made from timber from the first cathedral to open in the United States in Baltimore."
The pope gave the president an encyclical. "I actually will probably read this in the Oval Office when I'm deeply frustrated. I'm sure it will give me strength and calm me down," the president said smiling.
In Italy, Obama's visit — which will also include talks with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and President Giorgio Napolitano — has been a topic of conversation all week. Italians say they have hopes that Obama's short stop in Italy will lead to positive changes in the country and beyond.
"The whole world is suffering, and when you have two great leaders meet to discuss the world's economic problems, you have to have hope it will make a difference," said Salvatore Mucci, a 44-year-old coffee bar worker.
Sandro Conti, 56, a commercial painter, said he hoped Thursday's summit would draw increased attention to the issues both men champion.
"If these leaders can't make people understand how much average people are suffering then it will be a sad day," he said.
Obama has repeatedly expressed admiration for Francis in the little more than a year since he was elected pontiff. Francis has said he is eager to meet Obama as well. And diplomats on both sides have said expectations are that Thursday's encounter will focus on shared priorities between the two leaders rather than on where they differ.
But an advance story from Vatican Radio released on the eve of the visit may give a hint of possible friction. Vatican Radio, which is directed by Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi, is considered an official organ of communication for the church.
In the Vatican radio piece, it said Obama's audience with the pontiff "will take place in the content of a complex phase of the administration's relations of the Church of the United States, marked, in particular, by controversy on the implementation of health care reform having to do with the rules on mandatory health care coverage of sterilization, contraception, and abortion; and on other issues at the center of the public debate in the United States, such as the legalization of homosexual marriages."
This is Obama's second meeting with a pontiff following a discussion with Benedict XVI when Obama was in Italy in 2009 for the G-8 summit. Every U.S. president since Dwight D. Eisenhower met John XXIII in 1959 has met the pope, and with Thursday's meeting every pope since then with the exception of John Paul I — who was pope for only 33 days — met the U.S. president.