In their preliminary exchange of pleasantries, the US president said he was the pope’s “great admirer”, and the pair went on to spend 54 minutes together – an unusually long meeting by papal standards.
The US president was greeted at the Vatican with a display of pomp that was in stark contrast to their expected discussion on how to tackle poverty and inequality.
With his poll ratings under siege, Obama will doubtless be hoping to tap into a little of the Argentinian pontiff’s magic. But it remained to be seen how far the pope would push the Vatican’s agenda, which includes objections to the US administration’s policies on abortion and contraception.
He said he brought greetings from his family and mentioned that they had met Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict. The pope’s responses could not be heard, but one of those present said that at one point he had answered “thank you” in English.
The doors were then closed so that the two men could continue their discussions in private with just two interpreters: one a pink-sashed monsignor; the other a woman wearing a black lace veil to cover her hair.
The president had earlier lavished praise on Francis, telling the newspaper Corriere della Sera: “The Holy Father has inspired the peoples of the entire world – and me too – with his commitment to social justice and his message of love and compassion, especially for people who are the poorest and most vulnerable among us.”
Thursday’s meeting took place as the US administration backed a campaign to raise the federal minimum wage. But it also came just two days after the US supreme court heard arguments in a challenge to Obama’s affordable care act, which requires for-profit insurance companies to cover the cost of contraception.
This was Obama’s second visit to the Vatican. In 2009, he met Benedict for just under half an hour.