VATICAN CITY -- Face to face for the first time, President Barack Obama and Pope Francis focused publicly on their mutual respect and shared concern for the poor on Thursday. But their lengthy private discussion also highlighted the deep differences between the White House and the Catholic Church on abortion and birth control.
The gaps were evident in the differing accounts Obama and the Vatican gave of the meeting, with Obama stressing the two leaders' common ground on fighting inequality and poverty while Vatican officials emphasized the importance to the church of "rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection." That point by church officials referred to a major disagreement over a provision of Obama's health care law.
The meeting inside the grand headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church marked a symbolic high point of Obama's three-country visit to Europe. For a president whose approval ratings have slipped since winning re-election, it was also an opportunity to link himself to the hugely popular pope and his focus on fighting poverty.
"Those of us as politicians have the task of trying to come up with policies to address issues," Obama said following the meeting. "But His Holiness has the capacity to open people's eyes and make sure they're seeing that this is an issue."
The president said the plight of the poor and marginalized was a central topic in their talks, along with Middle East peace, conflicts in Syria and the treatment of Christians around the world. Social issues, he said, were not discussed in detail.
However, the Vatican left out any reference to inequality issues in its description of the meeting. In a written statement, church officials instead said discussions among not only the pope and president but also their top aides centered on questions of particular relevance for the church leaders in the U.S., making veiled references both to abortion and a contraception mandate in Obama's health care law, which is under review by the Supreme Court.
For Obama, the meeting with the pope marked a departure from the intense focus on the situation in Ukraine, which dominated his first three days in Europe.
The president's motorcade snaked through the narrow streets of Rome Thursday morning, passing thick crowds near the entrance to the Vatican. Obama and members of his delegation were joined by Vatican officials for a slow processional through the frescoed Clementine Hall, where Swiss Guards stood watch in their brightly colored uniforms designed by Michelangelo.
Obama and Francis, two of the world's most recognizable men, both appeared nervous as they shook hands before entering the Papal Library.
"I'm a great admirer," Obama said to the smiling pope. The two men then sat across from each other at a wooden desk for a private meeting that lasted 52 minutes, well beyond the half-hour that had been scheduled.
Obama seem buoyed by the meeting as they emerged, smiling broadly as the pope greeted a handful of Obama's senior advisers. Among them was Secretary of State John Kerry, who pronounced himself "a great admirer of everything you've been doing, as a Catholic, for the church."
The president then presented the pope a seed chest with fruit and vegetable seeds used in the White House Garden, in honor of the pope's announcement earlier this year that he's opening the gardens of the papal summer residence to the public. The chest was custom-made of leather and reclaimed wood from the Baltimore Basilica, one of the oldest Catholic cathedrals in the U.S, and inscribed with the date of Thursday's meeting.
The pope's gift to Obama included a copy of his papal mission statement decrying a global economic system that excludes the poor. The president said he would keep it at the White House and read it during frustrating moments in the Oval Office.
Obama also extended an invitation for the pope to visit the United States. Speaking in his native Spanish, the Argentine pope replied, "Why not?"
Although the Vatican has not yet confirmed the trip, it is likely that Francis will travel to the U.S. in September 2015 for the church's World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. Popes have attended these family celebrations five of the past seven times, and Francis has put family issues at the forefront of his agenda.
Before departing the Vatican, Obama asked the pope to "pray for me and my family," echoing the pope's tradition of ending his meetings by asking people to pray for him.
Obama has visited the Vatican once before as president, meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. But Obama's meeting with the current pope was more highly anticipated, given their shared economic philosophies and Francis' own global popularity.
According to the Pew Research Center more than eight in 10 U.S. Catholics say they have a favorable view of the pontiff.
While Francis has brought a change in tone and emphasis to aspects of the Vatican, the core doctrines that have divided the church and the Obama administration have not changed.
Obama is a strong supporter of abortion rights, while Francis embraces church teaching against abortion. Still, the pope has said he wants to focus more on his church being a welcoming place for wounded souls rather than a moralizing church.
There are also difficult areas of discord between U.S. bishops and the Obama administration over the administration's health care overhaul. U.S. bishops were among the most outspoken opponents of "Obamacare," objecting to its mandatory coverage of birth control. The Supreme Court this week seemed divided when hearing arguments in a case in which companies argued that they have religious rights and can object to such coverage based on such beliefs.
Italy was Obama's third stop on a weeklong overseas trip that previously took him to the Netherlands and Belgium. After meeting with the pope, the president held talks with Italian political leaders, including the country's energetic new prime minister, Matteo Renzi.
Obama closed his day in Rome with a private tour of the Coliseum. Touring the ancient amphitheater at dusk, the president declared it "remarkable."
From Rome, Obama was headed to Saudi Arabia, the final stop on his trip. Saudi Arabia is a key U.S. ally in the Gulf, but has grown angry over the lack of U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war and skeptical of Obama's diplomatic overtures to Iran. The president also plans to seek Saudi Arabia's help in keeping afloat U.S. efforts to strike a Middle East peace accord.