President Obama today met with Pope Benedict XVI for the first time at the Vatican, where the two leaders discussed a number of common ground issues such as combating poverty worldwide and nuclear arms control.
In their 30-minute meeting, the two men also confronted issues like abortion and stem cell research, on which Obama's stances stood in stark contrast to the Vatican. The Vatican said the conversation also dealt with the Middle East peace process, immigration, intercultural and interfaith dialogue, the economic crisis and aid for Africa and Latin America.
Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough said Obama was "very touched by the visit" and though his opinions on some issues may differ from those of the pope, he wants to find "common ground."
When asked if the meeting is likely to change Obama's opinions on issues like abortion, McDonough responded: "The president, as he said in Notre Dame, has thought long and hard about these issues and he has his views on it. ... At the end of the day, it may just be that there's issues that they can't come to agreement on, but I think he believes that you can... disagree without being disagreeable."
White House officials said the president delivered a letter to the pope from Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer last year. Obama also asked Pope Benedict to pray for the ailing senator, who is undergoing treatment and remains absent from the Senate.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the president spoke with Kennedy on the phone from his plane for about 10 minutes to tell him he had delivered the letter to the pope.
"Mr. President, welcome," the German-speaking pope said in English.
As the two sat face to face with dozens of photographer flashbulbs going off behind them, Obama said to the pope, "Your Holiness, I'm sure you're used to having your picture taken. I'm getting used to it."
The pope smiled and nodded and said, "You must be tired after all these discussions," referring to the week of meetings and summit sessions.
Obama presented the pope with a liturgical stole that from 1988 to 2007 was on the body of St. John Neumann in Philadelphia. Pope Benedict gave the president a mosaic of St. Peter's Square and Basilica, an autographed copy of his new encyclical, or papal letter, released Tuesday and bound in white leather. He also gave Obama the Pontical Medal and Rosaries, typically given to foreign dignitaries.
First lady Michelle Obama, wearing a short black veil and a black dress, joined the president after his private meeting with the pope. Several senior White House officials, including Gibbs and McDonough, received a blessing from Pope Benedict and posed for a picture with him and the Obamas.
First daughters Malia and Sasha also joined their parents at the Vatican to meet the pope.