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Obama, Pope Hold First Meeting

Pope Francis and President Barack Obama smile as they exchange gifts, at the Vatican, March 27, 2014.
Pope Francis and President Barack Obama smile as they exchange gifts, at the Vatican, March 27, 2014.
U.S. President Barack Obama held his first-ever meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican.

The historic, nearly hour-long conversation, held at a desk in the Vatican's Papal Library, began in a warm atmosphere, with Obama saying he is great admirer of the pontiff, and extending a spontaneous invitation to visit the White House.

Through the loud shutter of cameras, Francis – in his native Spanish – told the U.S. leader he was grateful for the visit.

The president made the invitation as he was giving Francis a symbolic gift of seeds from the White House garden after 50 minutes of private talks in the pope's library.

"If you have a chance, you can come to the White House and you can see the garden,'' Obama said to the pope as he was explaining the gift in the presence of reporters.

The Pope, responded in Spanish, "Como no?'' (For sure).

The Catholic Church in the United States wants the pope to visit Philadelphia in 2015 for an international gathering of families.

The custom-made seed chest is made of leather and reclaimed wood from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore, which is one of the oldest Catholic cathedrals built in the United States.

Apart from the symbolic seeds donated to the pope, the White House said seeds would be donated in the United States that will yield several tons of produce to a charity of Pope Francis' choosing.

The White House said the president has been inspired by the pope in his first year and the way the pontiff has motivated people around the world by his message of inclusion and equality.

White House officials portrayed this as a chance for the two men to get to know each other and highlight the areas where they agree.

The meeting was for Obama a chance to bridge strained relations and improve his image among some Catholic American voters who see the administration as hostile to the church's teachings.

Relations with the Catholic church 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 U.S.' new healthcare law. The action counters church teachings against contraception and abortion and observant Catholics said it violates their religious freedom.

American bishops and followers who in some cases had supported the healthcare law condemned the requirement and joined in lawsuits to block the mandate's implementation.

“There were people who were, up until then, willing to have an open mind about the administration's attitude. 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," explained Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, a prominent Catholic theologian and commentator.

President Obama went into the meeting expecting to keep the conversation to areas where the two men do agree. Pope Francis has spoken frequently against world poverty and inequality. President Obama has called for bridging the gap between rich and poor and has led efforts to raise the minimum wage in the United States.

Another area where the Obama administration at odds with the church is homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Pope Francis' willingness to discuss the issue more loosely than his predecessors has been interpreted by many to signal a new overture. The pontiff, however, has not initiated changes to church doctrine on that and other issues.

He has, on a number of occasions, strongly condemned the practice of abortion.

Pope 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.

Thursday's meeting with President Obama is seen as perhaps a new chapter in what has been an uneasy relationship.