WHITE HOUSE NOTEBOOK: Obama meets Your Holiness
VATICAN CITY — The exchange of gifts is a de rigueur part of every papal audience but Thursday’s presentation had an unusually loud element to it. A metal support holding up the top of President Barack Obama’s gift — a chest of seeds from the White House garden — twice crashed onto the marble floor of the pope’s library as reporters and photographers rushed to get into position to record the moment for posterity.
At first, some in the room thought the pope’s gift to Obama, two bronze medallions, fell to the floor. But even after it became clear the culprit was the flimsy metal stilt, the Vatican’s protocol monsignors glared at journalists and even Obama appeared cross at the interruption.
Eventually, aides gave up and let the top of the seed chest hang down without the support.
“These, I think, are carrots,” Obama told the pope as he pulled out a blue velvet pouch from the seed chest.
The White House said the gift was inspired by Francis’ decision to open to the public the gardens of Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s summer residence in the hills south of Rome.
The 55 hectares (135 acres) of gardens actually cover more ground than Vatican City and include gardens of herbs, roses, fountains and fish ponds.
Pope Benedict XVI spent the first two months of his retirement there, and popes for centuries have spent at least part of the hot summer months there. But Francis decided not to use the retreat, preferring to work through the summer from his headquarters at the Vatican hotel.
The White House said, in addition to the gift of seeds, it would donate even more seeds to a charity in Francis’ honor that will yield “several tons of fresh produce.”
“This gift honors the commitment of Your Holiness to sow the seeds of global peace for future generations,” the White House said in its description of the gift.
Francis typically presents Vatican-themed bronze medallions to his visitors and Obama was no different, though he did get two rather than the usual one.
The smaller medallion depicts an angel bringing together the northern and southern hemispheres — appropriate for a gift from a South American pope to a North American president.
The larger medallion depicts the original project Bernini had for St. Peter’s Square, which involved a never-built third colonnade to enclose the piazza.
But the gift that most drew Obama’s attention was the red-bound copy of the pope’s apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” Francis’ mission statement for his papacy in which he denounced the global economic system that excludes the poor.
“You know, I actually will probably read this when I’m in the Oval Office, when I am deeply frustrated, and I am sure it will give me strength and will calm me down,” Obama said.
Some conservatives in the U.S. have pointed to the document as evidence Francis is a “Marxist” — a description Francis rejects while saying, somewhat in jest, he has many friends who are Marxists.
To Obama, a stadium, even an ancient one, means modern-day sports.
The rain in Rome had stopped long enough for him to visit the Colosseum, an ancient ruin and major tourist attraction in the Italian capital. And during a tour that lasted about half an hour, Obama was asked whether he could imagine it in its day. He said he could.
“This is bigger than some current baseball stadiums,” Obama said, who is a fan of the Chicago White Sox baseball team. “I have to check on what it seats. It’s remarkable. Unbelievable.”
Obama, who had removed his neck tie, unbuttoned his shirt collar and donned an overcoat to ward off the chill, was surrounded on all sides by the towering red brick and stone seating areas where thousands of people would have crammed into the stadium for hand-to-hand combats between gladiators.
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