President Obama called himself a "great admirer" of Pope Francis as he sat down at the Vatican today with the pontiff he considers a kindred spirit on issues of economic inequality. Their historic nearly hourlong first meeting comes as Obama's administration and the church remain deeply split on issues of abortion and contraception. Obama arrived at the Vatican amid the pomp and tradition of the Catholic Church, making his way to greet the pope after a long, slow procession through the hallways of the Apostolic Palace led by colorful Swiss Guards and accompanied by ceremonial attendants. The president bowed as he shook hands with the pontiff in the Small Throne Room, before the two sat down at a wooden table in the Papal Library. "It is a great honor. I'm a great admirer," a broadly grinning Obama said. "Thank you so much for receiving me."
The two were scheduled to meet for a half-hour, but their private discussion lasted 52 minutes. Obama seem buoyed by the meeting as they emerged and the pope greeted a handful of Obama's senior advisers. Secretary of State John Kerry pronounced himself "a great admirer of everything you've been doing, as a Catholic, for the church." Obama then presented the pope with a seed chest with fruit and vegetable seeds used in the White House Garden, in honor of the pope's announcement earlier this year that he's opening the gardens of the papal summer residence to the public. The chest was custom-made of leather and reclaimed wood from the Baltimore Basilica, one of the oldest Catholic cathedrals in the US, and inscribed with the date of their meeting. But the relationship between the Obama administration and the Catholic Church remains a fraught one: Vatican officials say Obama will not have left without having heard Francis' views on Obama's health care law and its mandates for contraception coverage.