VATICAN CITY — President Barack Obama called himself a "great admirer" of Pope Francis as he sat down at the Vatican on Thursday with the pontiff he considers a kindred spirit on issues of economic inequality. Their historic 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," Obama said. "Thank you so much for receiving me."
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 healthcare 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.