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Howard meets with Pope at Vatican

John Howard met the Pope on Saturday in the first papal audience in Rome for an Australian Prime Minister since Bob Hawke's 1986 visit.

The Prime Minister, accompanied by his escort of a papal Gentleman of Honour, was taken through some of the most beautiful rooms of the Vatican to private talks in the Pope's personal library.

As a non-Catholic he did not kiss the Pope's ring, but shook hands.

Sources with the Prime Minister's party said the Pope was clearly ailing, but had remarkable energy and was "as sharp as a razor blade on his day".

It is believed Mr Howard wanted to meet the Pope, 82, on behalf of Australia's Catholics and others who admire the former Polish nationalist, before he was incapacitated, by ill health.

He had been briefed that the Pope would allow his visitor to raise many topics during the 15-minute talks, and that he was particularly interested in programs for youth.

It was considered unlikely the two would discuss two highly sensitive issues on which the Vatican was critical of Australian policy -- border-protection policies and legislation to allow embryo stem-cell research.

After this private session Janette Howard, wearing a black mantilla, was ushered in to meet the Pope.

Mr Howard presented the Pope with a gift of common heath flower and leaf spray in Australian timbers, created by Michael Retter, who did many of the marquetry in Parliament House, Canberra.

Mr Howard later held talks with the Vatican's Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano.

One of Howard's media advisers, Willie Herron, who had wanted the Pope to bless her engagement ring in advance of her September wedding. A list of Australian officials to be introduced to the Pontiff was changed at the last minute to include the relatively junior press secretary.

Meanwhile Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien has been accused of snubbing the Pope by declining an invitation to be part of the official welcoming party when the Holy Father arrives in Toronto later this month to help celebrate World Youth Day.

While the PM's office insists no decision has been made yet whether Chrétien will attend, World Youth Day organisers say Deputy Prime Minister John Manley has been tabbed to represent the PM and Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson at the official welcome.

Prime Minister of Australia
World Youth Day

Sunday Herald-Sun/Toronto Star

8 Jul 2002