VATICAN CITY - Barack Obama will meet Pope Francis for the first time Thursday for talks on a shared agenda to fight inequality which the US President hopes will help boost support at home.
The talks between the first Latin American pope and the first African-American US president will focus on tackling the gap between rich and poor, but could spill over into thornier issues such as abortion, contraception and gay rights.
"The Holy Father has been an inspiration to people around the world, including me," Obama said in an interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera published on Thursday.
"It doesn't mean we agree on every issue," he added.
The meeting at the Vatican comes as a welcome rest-stop for Obama during a six-day European tour dominated by the crisis over Crimea, and the US leader will doubtless be hoping some of the pope's overwhelming popularity will rub off on him.
Obama is "mostly going I think to bask in the glow of the new Pope," said Jeremy Shapiro, visiting fellow at Washington's Brookings institute.
His main aim will be "to highlight their sort of mutual attention to the problems of poverty and inequality. This isn't really a foreign policy stop," he said.
Ahead of the meeting with Obama, Pope Francis held a morning mass for a group of 500 Italian politicians in which he warned them against becoming "hard-hearted" and "corrupt".
Politicians are "fishermen" and "should not distance themselves from the people, close themselves in their group, their party," the pope said.
Obama will also meet new Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi - the European Union's youngest government leader - and President Giorgio Napolitano during his visit, as well as going on a private guided tour of the Colosseum.
Diplomatic relations between Italy and the United States are close, though Rome still needs some convincing on the value of imposing sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine crisis, amid fears it would take a toll on a key market.
Obama in his interview highlighted the "critical role" played by Italy in the Mediterranean region and said Washington and Rome were working together to rebuild Libya.
Italy's 39-year-old Renzi, who used Obama-style catchy slogans and social media campaigns to shoot up the political ladder, will be keen to strengthen ties with the US leader.