VATICAN CITY, JAN. 23, 2004 ( John Paul II received Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar in audience and praised the country's Church-state relations as marked by "respect and independence."

Today's audience was the Pope's farewell to Aznar as head of the Spanish government. He will leave office after the March 14 general elections.

The Holy Father recalled his fifth trip to Spain, last May. And he said he was pleased "by the sincere and loyal collaboration between the Church and the authorities at the service of the Spanish, in respect and independence."

The Pope and Aznar met alone for about 15 minutes in the Holy Father's private library. They were later joined by members of Aznar's family and his aides, whom the Pontiff greeted individually.

In a statement, Vatican spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls later said that "the Pope and Prime Minister Aznar spoke about Europe in a very cordial conversation."

"The Holy Father appreciated the position of the president of the Spanish government, particularly on the recognition of the historic Christian roots of Europe," the statement said, referring to Spain's position on the draft Constitution of the European Union.

"The conversation extended afterward to issues of the present situation of the world, especially in the Mediterranean area and the Middle East," Navarro-Valls' statement added.

Aznar also met with the Vatican secretary of state. "During the meeting," the press statement said, "His Eminence Cardinal Angelo Sodano conferred the insignias of Dame of the Order of Pius IX on [the Prime Minister's wife] Ana Botella de Aznar, in recognition of her charitable and social initiatives."