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Pope's hand of friendship for the President

PRESIDENT Mary McAleese had a 25-minute private audience with Pope John Paul II in the Vatican yesterday and pronounced the 79-year-old Pontiff surprisingly strong and ``intellectually, ferociously agile.''

Just days after resuming work following a week-long flu, the Pope engaged Mrs McAleese in a wide debate which ranged from the peace process in the North to the chances of another Papal visit to Ireland.

The President told the Irish Independent that she raised the prospect of a visit by telling the Pope she last saw him 20 years ago in Dublin's Phoenix Park along with 1.25 million other people.

``I said of course in Ireland, there would always be a great welcome for him, and he did say he would ponder the possibility of a visit,'' she said.

``He is deeply interested in the peace process and very well versed in the politics of it. He was very aware of the difficulties on decommissioning and the formation of the executive.

``He is singularly well-informed. His view is that we have come a long way in a very short time.''

He recalled making his 1979 plea in Drogheda to the paramilitaries to give up the way of violence and remarked that he is a very patient man.

President McAleese later held more detailed discussions with the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano and discussed inter-Christian and inter-faith ecumenism with Australian Cardinal Edward Cassidy, the Vatican's pontifical council chairman for Christian unity.

On the fourth day of her official visit to Italy and the Vatican, Mrs McAleese later travelled to Rome's sumptuous Quirinale Palace for a meeting with her Italian counterpart, President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro.

She will pay a courtesy visit to the new Anglican Centre in Rome today where she will meet the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr George Carey before he, in turn, pays a visit to Pope John Paul II.

Mrs McAleese was accompanied to the Vatican by her husband Dr Martin McAleese, Marine Minister Dr Michael Woods and his wife Margo, and Ireland's ambassador to the Holy See Eamon O'Tuathail.

With Italian and Irish tricolours flying from a top of the range Alfa Romeo, Mrs McAleese was whisked through the chaotic streets of Rome by police escort and through the Campane Arch to the San Damaso square in front of the Vatican's Apostolic Palace.

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She was greeted by head of the Papal household Bishop James Harvey and escorted by Swiss guards and ``gentlemen of the Papal household'' along a balcony with frescos by Rafael.

The Pope looked frail and walked with the aid of a stick but was clearly in very good form as he held out his hand to greet the President.

Mrs McAleese, her head covered by a fine lace shawl but not her face, shook the outstretched hand firmly and asked the Pontiff if he was feeling better after his flu.

He assured he was feeling fine, and the two disappeared into the room for a private, one-to-one audience that lasted 10 minutes longer than the scheduled 15.

Mrs McAleese later told journalists that, unusually, the Pope did a lot of talking during their meeting.

``I was delighted to see him so well,'' she said. ``I was worried we might be putting him under a bit of pressure, but any evidence of the cold was long gone.''

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