One man stepped into his new role promising change but has struggled to deliver it; the other, considered a “safe” choice by the men who elected him, turned out to be an effortless instigator of change from the moment he stepped onto a Vatican balcony, greeting the world with a humble request for a blessing and overturning expectations from the start. One is the first African-American to lead the United States; the other is the first Latin American to lead the universal church.
On March 27 President Obama met Pope Francis, a man the president has acknowledged as a source of personal inspiration, just as he is to 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. During the 50-minute meeting, longer than expected, the two leaders discussed “questions of particular relevance for the [U.S.] church…religious freedom, life and conscientious objection as well as the issue of immigration reform,” the Vatican said in a statement.
Pope Francis and President Obama also had an “exchange of views on some current international themes,” according to the statement, “and it was hoped that in areas of conflict, there would be respect for humanitarian and international law and a negotiated solution between the parties involved.” The pope and the president were at odds in September over how to respond to the Syria crisis after the Assad regime stomped across what the president had described as a “red line,” deploying chemical weapons against civilians holed up in rebel-held suburbs near Damascus. Hundreds died and the world was horrified by the images that emerged after the attacks. Pope Francis helped propel a rising tide of world opinion against a U.S. military response, calling for a day of fasting and prayer in resistance to what he worried would prove a dramatic escalation in the crisis.
The Vatican did highlight two points of harmony with Obama in the discussions: immigration reform and a “common commitment to the eradication of trafficking of human persons in the world.”
The president later told reporters that he and Pope Francis had “a wide-ranging discussion” and that the “bulk of the time” was focused on two central concerns of Pope Francis: “the issues of the poor; the marginalized; those without opportunity” and “growing inequality.” President Obama said “His Holiness has the capacity to open people’s eyes and make sure they’re seeing that [inequality] is an issue, and he’s discussed in the past, I think, the dangers of indifference or cynicism when it comes to our ability to reach out to those less fortunate or those locked out of opportunity.”
The president said that the two leaders “spent a lot of time talking about the challenges of conflict and how elusive peace is around the world.” They specifically discussed the Middle East, “where His Holiness has a deep interest in the Israeli-Palestinian issue,” and they discussed conditions in Syria and Lebanon “and the potential persecution of Christians.”
The president said, “I reaffirmed that it is central to U.S. foreign policy that we protect the interests of religious minorities around the world.”
President Obama added: “I think the theme that stitched our conversation together was a belief that in politics and in life the quality of empathy, the ability to stand in somebody else’s shoes and to care for someone even if they don’t look like you or talk like you or share your philosophy—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,” the president said, “that allows us to ignore the homeless on the streets. And obviously central to my Christian faith is a belief in treating others as I’d have them treat me. And [what has] I think created so much love and excitement for His Holiness has been that he seems to live this and shows that joy continuously.”