VATICAN CITY — One of the many moments pool reporters look forward to when a head of state meets the pope is the gift exchange.
The Vatican most often offers a unique piece of artisan art with a spiritual or Vatican theme. But when it comes to gifts from visiting dignitaries, it’s anything goes: chess sets, sacred or secular art, traditional and native crafts, books and rare manuscripts or teddy bears.
Today U.S. President Barack Obama gave Pope Francis a small chest full of fruit and vegetable seeds that are used in the White House Gardens.
“If you have a chance to come to the White House, we can show you our garden as well,” the president said.
“Como no!” the pope replied in Spanish, “Why not?” or “Of course.”
The seeds were inside individual blue velvet pouches.
“These I think are carrots,” the president said as he opened one of the pouches.
The president said the idea for the seeds came after he heard that Pope Francis had decided to open to the public the gardens at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo.
The custom-made box the seeds came in is made from reclaimed wood from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore — the first cathedral in the United States and an international symbol of religious freedom. [UPDATE: read this story by the Archdiocese of Baltimore's The Catholic Review for more interesting background on the box!]
The basilica’s cornerstone was laid by Jesuit Father John Carroll, the first Catholic bishop and archbishop in the United States.
According to the White House, the inscription on the chest reads:
Presented to His Holiness Pope Francis
by Barack Obama
President of the United States of America
March 27, 2014
In addition to the seeds for the papal gardens, the U.S. president was also passing on a donation from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, which is donating enough seeds to yield several tons of produce to any charity the pope chooses.
“The gift honors the commitment of your Holiness to sow the seeds of global peace for future generations,” a White House statement said.
The gifts the president received from the pope included a large bronze medallion of an angel representing solidarity and peace. The angel is “embracing and bringing together the northern and southern hemispheres of the earth, while overcoming the opposition of a dragon,” the Vatican said.
However, Pope Francis specified that the gift was actually a personal gesture from him, “from Jorge Bergoglio. When I saw it, I said: ‘I’ll give it to Obama; it’s the angel of peace,” he told the U.S. president.
The other medal, which the pope said, “is from the pope,” is a replica of a 17th-century medallion commemorating the laying of the first stone of Bernini’s colonnade in St. Peter’s Square.
“I will treasure this,” Obama said.
He also received a copy of the pope’s Apostolic Exhortation on the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today’s World, “Evangelii Gaudium,” a gift the pope has been giving visiting heads of state.
The president said with a smile: “I actually will probably read this in the Oval Office when I’m deeply frustrated. I’m sure it will give me strength and calm me down.”
When the remark was interpreted for the pope, he smiled, said “I hope,” and chuckled, too.