In First Visit To The Vatican, Obama Finds Himself Moved

President Obama and Pope Francis met for the first time at the Vatican. The meeting is intended to mark a fresh start for the administration's sometimes-strained relationship with Catholic leadership.

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President Obama says he was incredibly moved by his meeting today with Pope Francis at the Vatican. The president and the pontiff met for almost an hour. They discussed the plight of the poor and international conflicts. And there was also discussion of some hot-button issues for the Roman Catholic Church. American bishops have opposed the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act, and a statement about today's meeting from the Holy See alluded to that clash. Here' NPR's Sylvia Poggioli from Rome.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: President Obama and his delegation were welcomed by Vatican officials with a solemnity reserved for high-profile visits. A platoon of Swiss guards in their colorful renaissance uniforms led the slow procession through marble-floored rooms and under frescoed ceilings. The pope greeted the president, who told Francis, it's a great honor. I am a great admirer. They spoke in private in the papal study for 52 minutes, although the meeting had been scheduled to last only half an hour. At a press conference later, the president described the meeting.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I was extremely moved by his insights about the importance of us all having a moral perspective on world problems and not simply thinking in terms of our own narrow self-interests.

POGGIOLI: President Obama said the theme that stitched their conversation together was the importance of empathy in politics as well as in life.

OBAMA: That that's critical. It's the lack of empathy that makes it very easy for us to plunge into wars. It's the lack of empathy that allows us to ignore the homeless on the streets.

POGGIOLI: The pope and the president also discussed immigration reform and several international issues, including the Middle East and the potential persecution of Christians in the region, as well as developments in Latin America.

OBAMA: The largest bulk of the time was discussing two central concerns of his. One is the issues of the poor, the marginalized, those without opportunity and growing inequality.

POGGIOLI: Pressed to say whether Francis echoed the U.S. bishops' criticism of some of his administration's policies, President Obama replied that the pope actually did not touch in detail the Affordable Care Act. The issue of religious freedom was discussed, he said, in his meeting with the Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

OBAMA: And I pledge to continue to dialogue with the U.S. Conference of Bishops to make sure that we can strike the right balance, making sure that not only everybody has health care, but families and women, in particular, are able to enjoy the kind of health care coverage that the ACA offers but that religious freedom is still observed.

POGGIOLI: The Vatican issued a brief statement a few hours after the visit. It said that during the cordial meetings, views were exchanged on some current international themes, but did not give any details. The statement also said there was a discussion on questions of particular relevance for the church and the United States, such as the exercise of religious freedom, life and conscientious objection.

By the end of the day, Vatican analysts were trying to weigh the significance of the different emphasis given by the president and by the Vatican to the encounter. Watching the footage at the end of the encounter, the body language suggested that a good rapport had been struck between the president and the pope.

The present the pope gave Mr. Obama was a copy of his apostolic exhortation, "The Joy of the Gospel," which contains a harsh critique of trickle-down economic theories and unfettered markets. The president said he would read it when he is deeply frustrated, certain that it will give him strength and calm him down. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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