Obama tells Pope Francis he is a ‘great admirer’

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Pope Francis and President Barack Obama smile as they exchange gifts, at the Vatican Thursday, March 27, 2014. President Barack Obama called himself a “great admirer” of Pope Francis as he sat down at the Vatican Thursday with the pontiff he considers a kindred spirit on issues of economic inequality. Their historic first meeting comes as Obama’s administration and the church remain deeply split on issues of abortion and contraception. (AP Photo/Gabriel Bouys, Pool)

Pope Francis and President Barack Obama smile as they exchange gifts, at the Vatican Thursday, March 27, 2014. President Barack Obama called himself a “great admirer” of Pope Francis as he sat down at the Vatican Thursday with the pontiff he considers a kindred spirit on issues of economic inequality. Their historic first meeting comes as Obama’s administration and the church remain deeply split on issues of abortion and contraception. (AP Photo/Gabriel Bouys, Pool)

U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Pope Francis, Thursday, March 27, 2014 at the Vatican. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Pope Francis and President Barack Obama shake hands at the Vatican Thursday, March 27, 2014. President Barack Obama called himself a “great admirer” of Pope Francis as he sat down at the Vatican Thursday with the pontiff he considers a kindred spirit on issues of economic inequality. Their historic first meeting comes as Obama’s administration and the church remain deeply split on issues of abortion and contraception. (AP Photo/Gabriel Bouys, Pool)

Pope Francis and President Barack Obama smile as they meet at the Vatican Thursday, March 27, 2014. President Barack Obama called himself a “great admirer” of Pope Francis as he sat down at the Vatican Thursday with the pontiff he considers a kindred spirit on issues of economic inequality. Their historic first meeting comes as Obama’s administration and the church remain deeply split on issues of abortion and contraception. (AP Photo/Gabriel Bouys, Pool)

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VATICAN CITY (AP) — A visibly energized President Barack Obama held a nearly hourlong audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Thursday, expressing his great admiration for the pontiff and inviting him to visit the White House.

Although Obama and the church remain deeply split over abortion and contraception, Obama considers the pontiff a kindred spirit on issues of economic inequality, and their private meeting in the Papal Library ran longer than scheduled. After they emerged to cameras, Francis presented Obama with a copy of his papal mission statement decrying a global economic system that excludes the poor. Obama said he will keep it in the Oval Office.

The president and pope both appeared tense at the start of the audience, when they initially greeted one another, but then were all smiles by the end of the meeting and seemed to have found a rapport, though they spoke through interpreters.

“It is a great honor. I’m a great admirer,” Obama said after greeting the pope with a slight bow as they shook hands. “Thank you so much for receiving me.”

Obama arrived at the Vatican amid all the pomp and tradition of the Catholic Church, making his way in 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 the pope’s desk, as is custom for a papal audience.

The two were scheduled to meet for just half an hour, but their private discussion lasted 52 minutes. At the end, they exchanged gifts, with the pope offering Obama two medallions and a copy of his apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel.”

“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.

“I hope,” the pope responded.

In a brief departure from all the formality, the metal support stilts being used to prop up the gifts repeatedly gave way, causing an audible crash that drew the consternation of the Vatican’s protocol monsignors and a look from Obama. Eventually, aides gave up on using the stilts.

Obama presented the pope with a seed chest with fruit and vegetable seeds used in the White House Garden, mentioning that he understands the pope is opening the gardens at the papal summer residence to the public. The chest was inscribed with the date of their meeting and custom-made of leather and reclaimed wood from the Baltimore Basilica — one of the oldest Catholic cathedrals in the U.S.

“If you have a chance to come to the White House, we can show you our garden as well,” Obama said. The pope responded “Why not,” in Spanish. Obama later joked that there’s more pageantry surrounding a Vatican visit than at the White House. “His Holiness is probably the only person who has to put up with more protocol than me,” Obama said.

It is likely that Francis will travel to the U.S. in September 2015 for the church’s World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. Popes have attended these family celebrations five of the past seven times they have been held, and Francis has put family issues at the forefront of his agenda.

The Vatican has not confirmed the trip and likely will not until a few months before.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has extended a formal and open invitation to the pope to address Congress when he visits the United States.

As Obama departed, he said to the pope, “Muchas gracias.” Then in English he added: “Please pray for me and my family.”

It was an echo of how Francis usually ends his meetings, asking for people to pray for him.

“They are with me on this journey,” Obama said of his family. He said his wife and children “have to put up with me.”

As they met, the six-year president, with his sinking poll numbers, wouldn’t have been

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