President Barack Obama and Pope Benedict XVI don't agree on the basic tenets of faith, but they do agree on one thing—they need each other. In the U.S., the Obama presidency has been met with mixed reviews by American bishops, who very publicly chided Notre Dame for choosing him as a commencement speaker because of his views on abortion. But here in Rome, the Vatican sees the American president in a more positive light. President Obama was given a double-honor, first meeting the Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, to discuss policy issues affecting both the United States and Vatican City. The president was then escorted to meet the pope, who greeted him with a smile and handshake. "Welcome, Mr. President," he said in English. "Thank you. It is a great honor, thank you so much," replied President Obama. The two then sat at a simple wooden desk while photographers snapped their pictures. "You must be used to getting your picture taken," quipped Obama. "I'm still getting used to it."
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The two then met for nearly 30 minutes behind closed doors, where they discussed climate change, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and global poverty. No official communiqué was released after their brief meeting, but Obama's delegation described the meeting as "productive." Back in front of the cameras, the pope presented the American president with a mosaic of St. Peter's Basilica and an autographed leather-bound copy of his latest encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, which was released earlier this week. The pope received an ancient stole that had been placed over the remains of St. John Neumann. Obama described the G-8 meeting in L'Aquila as productive, promising the pontiff that concrete progress had been made.
The Vatican meeting closed out a successful week for Obama at the G-8, his star power in L’Aquila eclipsed only by George Clooney’s surprise visit to the quake zone. Clooney arrived on Thursday to inaugurate an 80-seat theater for victims and to offer solidarity, telling residents about his own California quake experiences. He also promised to start filming a movie in L’Aquila in September to pump money into the region. “People here aren’t looking for a handout,” he told residents in one tent village. “They are looking for a hand up.”
Similar rhetoric was heard throughout the summit, which became the G-8 + 5 + 1. (The eight leading global economies are the U.S., the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Russia; the five runners up are Brazil, China, India, Mexico, South Africa; the “plus one” is Egypt.) Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s plan to hold the summit amid the quake damage paid off—at least on the surface. The devastating backdrop seemed to humble world leaders, who made progress on some key issues of economic cooperation, although the summit fell short on climate change.
The core members agreed to cut emissions 80 percent by 2050, but they refused to commit to individual goals and failed to get developing nations on board. “Ice sheets are melting. Sea levels are rising,” Obama told the group, asking them to help him make good on a campaign promise. “Our oceans are becoming more acidic, and we've already seen its effects on weather patterns, our food and water sources, our health, and our habitats.”
“Ice sheets are melting. Sea levels are rising,” Obama told the G-8, asking them to help him make good on a campaign promise.
On Friday, members committed $12 billion in food aid to help poverty-stricken nations develop sustainable agriculture. And they pledged to help tackle trade barriers and convert agricultural subsidies into investments for developing nations. Leaders also took a strong stance on Iran, setting a September deadline for nuclear talks and issuing a joint communiqué against the "arbitrary restrictions on or intimidation of embassy officials,” referring to the detention of a British embassy officer.
The summit ended with expression of solidarity for the victims of the L’Aquila earthquake, though little was forthcoming in terms of solid assistance. Thousands of area residents are still living in tent cities. The Italian government has promised that the first temporary housing will be in place by September and that everyone will have permanent housing by December. Berlusconi also promised that the victims would not be forgotten once the heads of state left town. The U.S., Germany, and Canada are all funding specific rebuilding projects in L’Aquila, but few hold out hope that town will ever fully recover. “People live under the impression that the reconstruction is going well and that most of us already live in houses,” says Mattia Lolli, who heads an activist group for victims of the April quake. “This is simply not true.”
Barbie Latza Nadeau has reported from Italy for Newsweek magazine since 1997. She also writes for CNN Traveller, Budget Travel magazine and Frommer's.