US President Barack Obama meets with Pope Francis, Thursday, March 27, 2014 at the Vatican. Obama called himself a "great admirer" of Pope Francis as he sat down at the Vatican 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. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Updated: March 27, 2014 12:20PM
VATICAN CITY — Sharp differences over abortion and birth control surfaced as President Barack Obama held his first meeting Thursday with Pope Francis, even as the president sought to emphasize common ground issues like economic inequality during a much-anticipated Vatican visit.
After Obama's hourlong audience with the pope, the Vatican said discussions centered on questions of "particular relevance for the church in that country, such as the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection" — issues that have fueled divisions between Obama and Catholics in the U.S.
But the Vatican statement also said the leaders discussed immigration reform, touching on an issue where Obama has largely enjoyed the support of America's many Hispanic Catholics.
Obama, for his part, emerged visibly energized from his audience with the pope, during which he expressed his great admiration and invited him to visit the White House.
"It is a great honor. I'm a great admirer," Obama said after greeting the pope with a slight bow as they shook hands. "Thank you so much for receiving me."
Although Obama and the church remain deeply split over social issues, Obama considers the pontiff a kindred spirit on issues of inequality, and their private meeting in the Papal Library ran longer than scheduled. After they emerged to cameras, Francis presented Obama with a copy of his papal mission statement decrying a global economic system that excludes the poor. Obama said he will keep it in the Oval Office.
"You know, I actually will probably read this when I'm in the Oval Office, when I am deeply frustrated and I am sure it will give me strength and will calm me down," Obama said.
"I hope," the pope responded.
The president and pope both appeared tense at the start of the audience, when they initially greeted one another, but then were all smiles by the end of the meeting and seemed to have found a rapport, though they spoke through interpreters.
Obama arrived at the Vatican amid all the pomp and tradition of the Catholic Church, making his way in a long, slow procession through the hallways of the Apostolic Palace led by colorful Swiss Guards and accompanied by ceremonial attendants. The two greeted one another in the Small Throne Room, before sitting across from one another at the pope's desk, as is custom for a papal audience.
Obama presented the pope with a seed chest with fruit and vegetable seeds used in the White House garden, mentioning that he understands the pope is opening the gardens at the papal summer residence to the public. The chest was inscribed with the date of their meeting and custom-made of leather and reclaimed wood from the Baltimore Basilica — one of the oldest Catholic cathedrals in the U.S.
"If you have a chance to come to the White House, we can show you our garden as well," Obama said.
"Why not?" the pope responded in his native Spanish.