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Posted March 30, 2014

At the Vatican, It's Obama's Turn . . . But The Pope's Trip Takes Center Stage

Taken from Whispers in the Loggia

A year into the new Rule of Francis, the Pope has met almost every key Western leader, with one particularly glaring exception.

That'll change first thing Thursday morning, as President Obama returns to the Apostolic Palace for his first meeting with Papa Bergoglio and second overall with a Pope after his July 2009 visit to Benedict XVI.

Given its late afternoon scheduling to accommodate Obama's schedule -- and the now-retired Pope's desire to meet with him -- that earlier visit upended standard Vatican protocol, which invariably sees heads of state and government received from mid-morning until noon. This time, with Francis enjoying Stateside approval numbers more than double those of the battle-weary, second-term president, Air Force One is touching down in Rome tomorrow night to allow for the morning time-slot.

A keen morning person, Francis prefers to hold the daily rounds of courtesy audiences for high-profile visitors before lunch. Despite the new reality of the Pope residing at the Domus, almost all of his formal meetings are still held in the Papal Apartment atop the Palace, which he continues to employ as his daytime office.

In another change from the last POTUS-Pope summit, the First Lady won't be meeting Francis alongside her husband; together with the couple's two daughters, Michelle Obama is on a visit to China. As the Vatican stop is part of a six-day swing through Europe and Saudi Arabia, the makeup of the delegation accompanying Obama on Thursday remains unclear.

Of course, amid the Democrat's prominent support of legal abortion and the seeping of the wider political polarization into American Catholic life, no modern Commander-in-Chief can visit the Pope without a spate of controversy, or the desire for it from media or lobbying circles. A year since Francis' emergence, however, the Obama White House has come to warmly embrace the new Pope, with the president even taking to pulling quotes from the pontiff on the stump.

At a preliminary briefing for the visit, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said that Obama "has long looked forward to meeting Pope Francis.

"He has very much admired the leadership he has provided in his first year as Pope, his commitment to address issues like income inequality, and his leadership of the church more broadly," Carney said, adding that the president was especially intent "to hear about the very ambitious agenda that [Francis] has launched in his first year."

Following the president's sit-down with the Pope -- likely to comprise around a half-hour one on one, then the usual exchange of gifts and Francis' greetings to the traveling aides -- per custom, geopolitical issues will come into further focus as Obama meets with the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

Among the phalanx of secular heavyweights who've been beating a path to his door since his ascent to the papacy, Francis has already met with the leaders of Russia, Germany, France, Spain, the United Nations and European Community, as well as most of the heads of state or government from his native Latin America. Last week, the Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner paid her third visit to the country's most celebrated export, which this time included a long lunch for the duo alone. With Kirchner running late due to a leg injury, keeping to his own form, as the Pope waited for the president at the door of the Domus, he walked over alone to start chatting with the press corps on hand.

Next week, another top-flight visit's in store for Francis as Queen Elizabeth II returns to the Vatican to meet with the seventh Pope of her 62-year reign. Given the British monarch's historic role as supreme governor of the Church of England, the encounter brings an added ecumenical dimension, all the more given the queen's intense personal faith and commitment to a prominent place for religion in society.

Set to be accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh, in a sign of the Pope's esteem, the royals won't be received at the Palace, but for a more personal visit at the Domus. Soon to turn 88 and in the process of handing over an increasing amount of duties to her heirs, the queen's Rome swing will be her first overseas trip in three years.

Back to Obama's stop, meanwhile, as domestic affairs always tend to frame the stage for an American president at the Vatican, this week brings converging storylines featuring a couple key threads on the US' church-state front.

First, underscoring the bishops' prime clash with the administration over recent years, today brings the oral arguments at the Supreme Court in two cases seeking an overturn of the Federal health-care reform's mandate for contraceptive coverage in benefit plans. As opposed to the scores of suits filed by church-related entities nationwide over the Obamacare mandate's exemptions for religious employers, however, the cases at issue today involve the ability of for-profit businesses to opt out from covering contraceptives on religious freedom grounds.

With the church suits encountering a clash of outcomes as they make their way through lower courts, Supreme Court review for those cases is likely in the next term. As the mandate took force for non-exempt religious institutions last January, several injunctions were issued to Catholic entities, allowing them to not comply without penalty until the cases were settled. Most prominently, the SCOTUS granted a stay for the Little Sisters of the Poor and other church organs enrolled in its Christian Brothers-administered plans.

While the issue of the mandate was raised as a concern of the Holy See during Secretary of State John Kerry's January meeting with Parolin, for his own part, Francis has indicated his preference that matters of domestic issue engagement are optimally addressed by the relevant conference of bishops. That signal began at home -- within weeks of his election, the Pope told the Italian bishops that their national body would lead the response to the country's political affairs, ending a longtime tug of war over that role between the Vatican and the CEI, as the conference is known