VATICAN CITY - President Barack Obama and Pope Francis have met for the first time at the Vatican.
Obama sat down with the pope in the Vatican's Papal Library for a nearly one-hour conversation that began in a warm atmosphere, with Obama saying he is a great admirer of the pontiff.
The president gave the pope a box of fruit and vegetable seeds used in the White House garden. The pope gave the president a small book, a papal document titled The Joy of the Gospel, which the president said he will turn to for strength.
Later, at a news conference with Italy's Prime Minister, Obama spoke of his meeting with the pontiff.
“My day started with the great honor of meeting with his holiness, Pope Francis, and like people around the world, I have been incredibly moved by his compassion, his message of inclusion," he said. "I was grateful to have the opportunity to speak with him about the responsibilities we all share for the least of the poor, the excluded."
The meeting was a chance for Obama to highlight the areas where they agree, and to bridge relations strained by differences on a wide range of views, and improve his image among some Catholic American voters who see the administration as hostile to the church's teachings.
Relations were damaged by the administration's efforts to force religious institutions and observant Catholics to pay for coverage of contraceptives, including abortion-inducing drugs, and female sterilization under the new U.S. healthcare law - in violation of church teachings against abortion and contraception.
Observant Catholics said the law trampled on their religious freedom.
American bishops and followers who in some cases had supported the health care law condemned the requirements and joined in lawsuits to block its implementation.
“There were people who were, up until then, willing to have an open mind about the administration's attitude," said Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, a prominent Catholic theologian and commentator. "And after this, there was the recognition, an opinion began to enter into Catholic circles that are not political, nonetheless began to be felt politically and that was obviously not the desire of the administration. So I would say the situation worsened the relations between the two."
Obama went into Thursday's meeting expecting to keep the conversation to areas where the two men agree. Pope Francis has spoken frequently against world poverty and inequality. Obama has called for bridging the gap between rich and poor and has led efforts to raise the minimum wage in the United States.
Obama said the conversation was largely on these topics, but without going into detail he indicated the pope did bring up their differences.
“His Holiness and the Vatican made clear their position on a range of issues," he said. "Some of them I differ with. Most I heartily agree with."
They also spoke about immigration, and the president said the pope raised concerns about the plight of Christians who are suffering persecution in the Middle East.
Francis was elected a year ago, surprising many with his informal style and focus on the poor, attracting non-observant Catholics and those who otherwise saw themselves having little in common with the Church and its teachings especially on issues like abortion, contraception, and homosexual unions.
The meeting with Obama is seen as perhaps a new chapter in what has been an uneasy relationship.