How Obama Was Humbled By Pope Francis
What happened when the most powerful man in the world felt the aura of the Argentine pontiff.
ROME — Observers noted that during yesterday’s meeting between President Barack Obama and Pope Francis, one of the men was beaming while the other was serious and composed, wearing the face of someone in a perfectly “normal moment.” Some even described the American president as appearing in utter awe of the pope, though they didn’t sense a reciprocal reaction from the pontiff.
If this is true, and looking at the images it could easily be the case, this might perhaps be the first time that U.S. president — to be perfectly clear, still very much the most powerful man in the world — felt a kind of “inferiority” in the presence of another official.
Obama, who had met Pope Benedict XVI on a previous visit, probably had been warned almost to the point of intimidation about the charisma of the man who has so surprised the world, not just with his words but with his deeds.
It is also likely that Pope Francis — even with the utmost respect and knowledge of his visitor’s power — didn’t regard yesterday’s meeting as any more important than other meetings with “normal people”: poor people from his diocese in Buenos Aires, penitents who come to confession, the chronically ill, parents worried for their children.
The subject of their conversation, obviously, will be much discussed: international politics, disarmament and poverty, what they agree on and what they don’t — gay marriage and abortion, for example. It’s right, naturally, to be curious about these topics.
But it would be a mistake to consider Thursday’s meeting an encounter between two heads of state, as we often do. Obama is one, but Francis is not. They’re two people who operate on entirely different levels. Both are concerned with matters of the world, yes. But one believes all the while that it is not our final destination.
Of course, Obama still embodies hope, thanks to his own personal history. But the hope that the pope embodies, with millions of people following this “leader” who commands neither armies nor empire, is the sign of something else, of a response not just to our daily questions about the meaning of life, but to the eternal ones too.