Thursday, March 27, 2014

Obama Comes to Francis

Lest anyone missed the first moments of this morning's much-awaited audience, here they are....

As of 11am Rome (6am ET), the Pope and POTUS have gone past a half-hour behind closed doors. (SVILUPPO: Per the White House, the private talks ended at 11.19am, running 52 minutes.)

The president having arrived a few minutes early, the traditional exchange of gifts and greeting of the visiting delegation remain to come; the US party is due to meet with the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, at 11.25. The usual readouts – summaries from each side – of the talks should emerge around Roman Noon.

While Obama's Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough – the brother of two priests – was conspicuous by his absence, the delegation accompanying the president was led by three heavyweights: the National Security Adviser Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the Holy See Ken Hackett, and Secretary of State John Kerry, whose selection as the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee (the first Catholic from either party since JFK) set off a high-octane ecclesiastical debate that echoes even into the present.

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SVILUPPO – 11.55am Rome: As we await the readouts, perhaps the day's most striking image – well, beyond the sight of the US delegation's women all veiled in traditional, full-length black mantillas – was that of the Stars and Stripes flying over San Damaso courtyard (above) as the presidential party showed up. It's difficult, if not impossible, to recall that happening at prior presidential visits.

The gifts were pretty poignant, to boot. For his part – perhaps signaling a wish for a new springtime with the church – Obama gave Francis a collection of seeds used in the White House garden. The kicker, however, was the chest they came in: custom-made and engraved with the occasion and date, the case was fashioned of wood from the US' first cathedral, Baltimore's Basilica of the Assumption, which the Jesuit founder-Bishop John Carroll and Benjamin Latrobe – the future architect of the Capitol – designed as a monument to religious freedom in the American experiment. Against the backdrop of the Obamacare contraceptive mandate which has roiled the Stateside church for going on three years, the significance is rather rich.

In a way, Francis responded in kind. As he has with other heads of state and government, the Pope is believed to have given Obama a copy of his programmatic apostolic exhortation, Evangelii gaudium, which condemned abortion in unstinting terms with its warning that "it is not 'progressive' to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life," but was still assailed by conservatives for its ridicule of those who "continue to defend trickle-down theories" of economics.

Before the massive motorcade rolled through St Peter's Square and the Arch of the Bells at midmorning, the buzz among the natives was that – unbeknownst to the press corps – Francis celebrated his morning Mass in the Basilica for a group of almost 500 members of the Italian Parliament, including the heads of both its chambers.

In his homily to the officials, Papa Bergoglio used today's Gospel as a springboard to advise against the temptation toward "compartmentalization" that public life can lead to – "people with good manners, but ugly habits."

"Compartmentalization" leads to "corruption," the Pope said, all of it born from people's "hardness of heart that became so great they could no longer hear the Lord's voice."