The call came to Baltimore's Basilica several weeks ago: President Barack Obama needed a gift to bring to Pope Francis on his coming visit to the Vatican. Might the basilica, the first Catholic cathedral in the U.S., have something?
From a former crypt, now a storage room, in the bowels of the basilica, church officials did indeed have just the thing, or at least the raw material for it: some salvaged mahogany from the historic cathedral's early years, hand-crafted into a seed chest that the president presented to the pope Wednesday.
"The box is made from timber from the first cathedral to open in the United States, in Baltimore," Obama told the pope, displaying a large, deep box divided into nine compartments, each containing a pouch of fruit and vegetable seeds from the White House garden.
Actually, the wood was from former pews, but back at the basilica, they were nonetheless pleased that the pope now has a memento from the city where the Catholic Church first established itself in America.
"It's a recognition of a place where it all started," said Monsignor Arthur Valenzano, rector of the Basilica.
The Baltimore Basilica was built between 1806 and 1821 under the guiding hand of the first U.S. bishop, John Carroll, a cousin of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a Jesuit like Pope Francis. Its architect, Benjamin Latrobe, also designed the U.S. Capitol.
In giving the wood-and-leather chest of seeds, Obama noted Pope Francis' announcement this month that he would open the gardens of the papal summer residency, Castel Gandolfo, to the public.
"If you have a chance to come to the White House, we can show you our garden, as well," Obama said. The pope replied, "Why not?"
The nearly one-hour meeting between the two leaders came amid tensions between Obama and religious leaders, including the U.S. bishops, over a mandate in the Affordable Care Act that requires health insurance plans include contraceptive coverage. But Obama said he and the pontiff "didn't talk a whole lot about social schisms." Rather, he said, they spoke about issues concerning the poor and income inequality, subjects that both of them have highlighted in recent months.
Valenzano said that he hoped the gift might smooth the continuing dispute over the mandate, coming as it does from a cathedral that from the start has symbolized religious freedom in the New World.
"I hope it's an indication that the dialogue continues," Valenzano said, "and that both sides can be accommodated."
Church officials were contacted by the State Department as they tried to think of a gift for Obama to bring to his first meeting with the pope. The government representatives initially asked if there was something original to the cathedral that they might have, perhaps some of the original wood, said Bob Reier, the basilica's operations manager.
But, Reier said with a laugh, "it's still holding the building up."
He did, however, have an alternative: three sections of former pews from what is called the sisters' gallery. It's a balcony where a contemplative order of nuns, the Carmelites, used to attend Mass behind a screen that hid them from other worshippers, Reier said.
Much of the wood from those pews, which date to 1906, had previously been used to build altars for chapels in the basilica, but there were three remaining pieces, each about 4 feet by 2 feet and 6 inches thick, Reier said.
Reier said State Department staff picked up the wood — about three pounds in total — but he didn't see what they did with it until the rest of the world did: on news footage of Obama and Pope Francis exchanging gifts. (The pontiff presented Obama with a copy of his book "Evangelii Gaudium," or "The Joy of the Gospel.")
After photographers repeatedly knocked over a support that was keeping the hinged seed chest open, Obama explained to the pope the significance of its origin.
"I'm very happy what I provided to them was used for a good cause," Reier said. "It's good to know Pope Francis has a little piece of the basilica with him."
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