VATICAN CITY, MAY 17, 2002 ( Paul II received Chilean President Ricardo Lagos after an audience yesterday, in which the Pontiff encouraged the country´s reconciliation.

After meeting the Holy father privately, the Chilean President told the press that they "reviewed Chile´s evolution since the Holy Father´s visit in 1987, when he articulated the country´s need for reconciliation and peace."

Ricardo Lagos told the Pope that since his visit, Chile has taken important steps in the struggle against poverty. Since 1990, "we have reduced the levels of poverty by 50%," and, "we will make greater efforts in public policies to defeat indigence."

Lagos invited the Holy Father to return to Chile for a visit and expressed his hope for the canonization of Blessed Alberto Hurtado (1901-1952).

Following his meeting with the Pope, the Chilean President met with Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican Secretary of State and former Apostolic Nuncio in Chile, to address the issue of Church-State relations.

On this topic, Lagos and the Catholic Church hold opposite views, specifically regarding the law of Civil Marriage, known as the divorce law, currently being prepared by the Chilean government.

At the end of the visit, Chilean Cardinal Jorge Medina, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, spoke to the press to remind his audience that "this government has promoted free sterilization, the ´day-after´ abortion pill, and the divorce law."

Lagos, a 64-year old professed agnostic, praised the Pope, especially "his view of the present world" and stressed that John Paul II is a point of moral reference in these convulsive times.

The audience was held in the Pope´s private library in an atmosphere of cordiality. After a private conversation, they proceeded to the hall where Lagos´ entourage awaited him, which included Andres Zaldivar, President of the Senate; Mario Garrido, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; and Soledad Alvear, Foreign Affairs Minister.

Alvear said the meeting was a historic moment for Chile. Lagos highlighted the fact that the three Chilean State powers were at the Vatican.

Ricardo Lagos, appointed Chilean Ambassador to the Soviet Union by Salvador Allende, never took up his post in Chile after a coup d´Etat in 1973. Lagos is the first Socialist to become President since General Augusto Pinochet left the Presidency.