Following years of strained relations between the Obama administration and Catholic leadership, Pope Francis and President Barack Obama met for the very first time at the Vatican Thursday.
White House officials said that Obama presented Francis with a chest filled with fruit and vegetable seeds used in the White House garden. The chest was made from “from reclaimed wood from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” The New York Times reported.
The inscription on it read, “Presented to His Holiness Pope Francis by Barack Obama President of the United States of America, March 27, 2014.”
Obama’s gift was inspired by Francis’ decision to grant public access to gardens at the Apostolic Palace of Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s summer residence, according to USA Today.
And Francis presented Obama with a plaque, which the president said he would “treasure,” according to ABC News.
Obama called himself a “great admirer” of Pope Francis as he sat down with the pontiff — a man he considers a kindred spirit on issues of economic inequality.
Despite areas of agreement, though, it’s no secret that the Obama administration’s policies and views on abortion and contraception differ greatly from Catholic teaching, thus creating a very public rift between the two parties.
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. The meeting lasted for a total of 52 minutes — longer than was expected.
“It is a great honor. I’m a great admirer,” Obama said. “Thank you so much for receiving me.”
As they met, 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.
In January, the White House released a statement briefly outlining what Obama and Francis would likely speak about.
“The President looks forward to discussing with Pope Francis their shared commitment to fighting poverty and growing inequality,” it read.
It was Obama’s second papal meeting; he visited Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.
“I bring greetings from my family,” Obama told the pontiff. “The last time I came here to meet your predecessor, I was able to bring my wife and children.”
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 Associated Press contributed to this report.