What to Expect When Pope Francis and President Obama Meet

Details on the ceremony and what Pope Francis and President Obama might discuss.

March 26, 2014, 6:49 PM

March 26, 2014— -- President Obama meets for the first time with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Thursday amidst high expectations on both sides.

The two men could find common ground on issues of social justice, but the meeting could also entail an admonishment for the ongoing conflict between the Obama administration and the Catholic Church over a contraception mandate in Obama’s signature health care law.

This is Obama’s second visit to the Vatican as president but his first with this pope, making this visit, like his last, a chance to make a good first impression.

In addition to the high expectations for their conversations, the ceremony involved in a meeting between the head of the Catholic Church and a U.S. President is not to be missed.

Here’s what to expect from this papal visit:

1. Pomp and circumstance

During President Obama’s first visit to the Vatican in 2009, he could be seen marveling at the masterpieces that adorned the walls and ceilings as he was escorted through Apostolic Palace accompanied by brightly dressed Swiss guards.

“You can tell exactly who is coming by the number of Swiss Guards and Cardinals present,” said Father Gerald P. Fogarty, professor of Catholic History and Vatican Diplomacy at the University of Virginia.

PHOTO: US President Barack Obama (back-L) looks at a artwork as he arrives for an audience with Pope Benedict XVI on July 10, 2009 at The Vatican.
US President Barack Obama (back-L) looks at a artwork as he arrives for an audience with Pope Benedict XVI on July 10, 2009 at The Vatican.
Chris Helgren/AFP/Getty Images

Woodrow Wilson was the first U.S. president to meet with a sitting pope in 1919, but the audiences only became a regular thing with President Dwight D. Eisenhower. But after diplomatic relations were established in 1984, the visits became a bit more formal.

“Before there were diplomatic relations the president was received with a very low-key ceremony but they did receive them,” Fogarty said.

The meetings often take place in a familiar setting, the Papal Library, where the Pope receives foreign heads of state and dignitaries. It’s a room that, like much of the Vatican, is adorned with priceless works of art.

Obama will likely be introduced by Ambassador to the Holy See Ken Hackett. And as the camera shutters buzz around them, Obama and the pope will make friendly small talk, and smile for the cameras.

The private audience will last 20 to 30 minutes. Presidents, it turns out, do not get significantly more time with the pope than other visitors who are given a small meeting with the Holy Father.

Later, President Obama will meet for a longer period with the Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, where most of the real business is accomplished.

2. Gift exchange

PHOTO: US President George W. Bush (L) presents Pope John Paul II with the US Presidential Medal of Freedom in the Sala Clementina June 4, 2004 in Vatican City.
US President George W. Bush (L) presents Pope John Paul II with the US Presidential Medal of Freedom in the Sala Clementina June 4, 2004 in Vatican City.
Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

When newly inaugurated President Obama made a 2009 visit to the Vatican to visit Pope Benedict XVI, he came bearing a special gift: a stole that covered the remains of St. John Neuman, the first American bishop to be canonized.

In return, Pope Benedict XVI gave the Obama’s a framed mosaic of St. Peter’s square and a gold coin imprinted with the Pope’s official motto.

The gifts brought by U.S. presidents vary, and in the case of President George W. Bush’ 2004 meeting he also presented Pope John Paul II with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

3. A blessing

For an audience with the Holy Father, first ladies are nearly uniformly dressed in modest black outfits and a corresponding veil.

Those who are Catholic are expected to kiss the Pope’s ring (although Vice President Joe Biden, who is Catholic, did not do so when he visited). And others simply shake his hand. (Europeans, according to Fogarty, often bow as well.)

For his part, the pope will pass on a special blessing.

“They give some sort of blessing,” Fogarty said. “It is not strictly a religious ceremony but there’s a religious element because the pope is the head of the Catholic Church."

4. What they’ll agree on

Pope Francis has quickly become a beloved figure to both Catholics and non-Catholics worldwide thanks to his blunt comments encouraging the governments of the world to tackle economic inequality, his own modest lifestyle, and his laid-back demeanor.

Meanwhile, politicians in the U.S., including President Obama, are moving swiftly to get on the Pope Francis bandwagon.

When the two finally meet, Obama and Pope Francis may bond over their mutual advocacy of anti-poverty policies, which Obama has cited in his speeches advocating a higher minimum wage in the U.S.

In fact, as a former community organizer whose early work in Chicago was funded by the Catholic Church, this may be the biggest point of symmetry between the two.

The war in Syria, conflict with Russia, the peace in the Middle East are also likely to be top items on the agenda in talks between Obama and Pope Francis.

5. What they’ll disagree on

The relatively brief encounter between the head of the Catholic Church and head of state in the U.S. won’t mean that difficult issues won’t come up.

In the past, popes haven’t hesitated to pass on their disapproval over American policies. Bush’s 2004 visit focused largely on a disagreement over the wars in the Middle East.

Despite some of Francis’ teaching on inequality, which have been cheered by liberals, the Catholic Church still strongly opposes abortion and Pope Francis has publicly advocated against it in the U.S.

And the birth control mandate in President Obama’s health care law has pitted his administration against the Catholic Church in the U.S., so much so that it came up when Secretary of State John Kerry met with the pope and the Vatican Secretary of State earlier this year.

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