Expectations run high as President Obama meets Pope Francis in the Vatican

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Expectations were running high on the eve of President Barack Obama’s first meeting with Pope Francis in the Vatican. Sources said they were hopeful the two leaders would focus on the issues that unite rather than on those that divide, issues relating to peace, poverty, immigration and the importance of good cooperation between the Church and the Administration in the USA.

Obama is the ninth American President to make an official visit to the Vatican over the past one hundred years. He comes at the end of his European visit where the Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of the Crimea topped an agenda with the leaders of the industrialized countries known as the G-8, but now the G-7 after they voted to oust Russia. He also participated in important discussions on containing nuclear proliferation.

When the Pope and president sit across the table in the private library of the pontiff, there will be many important topics for discussion in the time available, but people on both sides are hoping that the conversation can be facilitated if there is good chemistry, as expected, between the first black President of the USA and the first Latin American Pope.

Sources told Vatican Insider that the meeting offers an important opportunity to open and build a constructive relationship between the Pope and the US President, as well as offering a chance to help repair and renew relations between the Catholic Church in the USA and the Obama administration. Today, Catholics count for 25 per cent of the US population.

The US president is likely to begin by briefly sharing with Pope Francis his reading of the present delicate political moment in European history as a result of the crisis in the Ukraine, and the discussions he had in these days with other world leaders on this, as well as on the nuclear question.

One of the areas where Obama hopes to find much common ground with Francis is on the question of global poverty and inequality. Since his election, Pope Francis has given considerable attention to the plight of the world’s poor and has repeatedly called for a radical reform of the world’s economy, so as to make it a person-centered one. In this context too, Pope Francis will want to raise the issue of immigration with the US President, an issue that is a high priority for the Catholic Church in the USA and other countries in the region.

In the course of their private conversation, sources expect the two leaders to discuss the dramatic situation in Syria and the urgent need to negotiate an end to the war there. The Pope and president are also likely to discuss the importance of reaching a peace accord between Israelis and Palestinians, and the uphill effort by the US to broker such an accord in the Holy Land where Pope Francis is due to visit in May.

Other issues that could feature in their conversation are the question of religious freedom in the world, and the great value of good cooperation between the Church and the Administration on this and other matters.

While US commentators have given a somewhat mixed reading of what might be expected from the Pope-president meeting, Obama has sought to prepare the ground well by praising Francis on several occasions over recent months for his commitment to the poor and his authentic witness to the social Gospel. As a young man, he was deeply engaged in social work projects with the Catholic Church in Chicago, and he clearly feels he has much in common with this Jesuit pope.

Pope Francis is immensely popular in the Unites States today, whereas the same cannot be said of the President. Moreover, on the eve of Obama’s visit, the speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, invited the Pope to address a joint session of the two houses of the US Congress – the Senate and the House of Representatives. It remains to be seen whether Obama will invite him to visit the White House in 2015, when the Pope is expected to visit the USA.

Since 2008, the White House and the American bishops have been at loggerheads on a number of issues, and clashed over the Administration’s positions on abortion and the contraception-linked clauses in the Obamacare legislation. And while the majority of Catholics voted for him in both the 2008 and 2012 elections, the US Bishops seemed to have preferred his Republican predecessor to Obama. In spite of all this, Obama chose a Catholic to be his vice-president and has a number of Catholics on his administration including Secretary of State John Kerry and Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough.

Significantly too he appointed another Catholic, Kenneth Hackett, former CEO of Catholic Relief Services, as the United States ambassador to the Holy See. All three will be part of the president’s delegation when he meets the Pope.

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Gerard O'Connell