‘I’m a great admirer,’ Obama meets Pope Francis

McClatchy Washington BureauMarch 27, 2014 

— President Barack Obama proclaimed himself a “great admirer” as he met Pope Francis Thursday morning at Vatican City for a audience that lasted just 50 minutes.

Obama was greeted by Francis outside the Papal Library, in the Small Throne Room. They walked towards each other and stretched out their hands to greet each other, smiling. Obama nodded his head slightly. The exchange was fast, “but appeared warm,” the White House pool report said.

"Wonderful meeting you," Obama said to Francis. "Thank you sir, thank you."

The two walked into the Papal Library and took seats at opposite sides of the pope's desk. They each had one interpreter.

"It is a great honor. I'm a great admirer," Obama told Francis. "Thank you so much for receiving me."

He told Francis that he brought greetings from my family, noting "the last time I came here to meet your predecessor I was able to bring my wife and children."

Before the meeting, Obama walked through the center of Clementine Hall, a large ante-room on the way where he was to meet with Francis. He proceeded past a dozen members of the Swiss Guard, standing at attention in their traditional purple and gold-striped uniforms with bright red feather plumes atop their gold helmets. The uniforms were designed by Michelangelo.

Obama was escorted by Archbishop Georg Gansewein. Behind him was Secretary of State John Kerry. Further behind were several members of the White House staff, including National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Press Secretary Jay Carney, deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes and Alyssa Mastromanaco. Both women wore mantilla -- shoulder length head scarves.

The White House says Obama presented Francis with a custom-made seed chest featuring a variety of fruit and vegetable seeds used in the White House garden. Francis earlier this month made the historic announcement that he would open to the public the gardens of the papal summer residence, the Apostolic Palace of Castel Gandolfo, the White House said.

The chest is made from American leather, and features reclaimed wood from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which is one of the oldest Catholic cathedrals built in the United States.

The Basilica’s cornerstone was laid by John Carroll, a Jesuit and the first Catholic bishop and archbishop in the United States. The Cathedral was designed by Benjamin Latrobe, who was selected by President Thomas Jefferson to serve as an Architect of the Capitol, and played a pivotal role in its design and construction.

The inscription on the chest reads: “Presented to His Holiness Pope Francis by Barack Obama President of the United States of America March 27, 2014.”

In keeping with the spirit of the gift, Thomas Jefferson's Monticello will donate seeds that will yield several tons of produce to a charity of Pope Francis’ choosing.

In an interview with the Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera, Obama called Francis “an inspiration to people around the world, including me, with his commitment to social justice and his message of love and compassion, especially for the poor and the vulnerable among us.

“He doesn’t just proclaim the Gospel, he lives it,” Obama said. “We’ve all been moved by his humility and acts of mercy. His deeds, the simple act of reaching out to the least of these, is a reminder that every one of us has an individual responsibility to live in a righteous way.”

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