Friday, January 8, 1999 Published at 10:59 GMT
Atheist's audience with the Pope
Massimo D'Alema: Confirmed atheist
By Rome Correspondent Orla Guerin
The Italian premier is a former Communist, the first to head a government in Western Europe, and a confirmed atheist.
The meeting is a testament to the normalised relations between the Roman Catholic church and its former Communist rivals after the tensions of the past.
It is being seen in Italy as a significant footnote to history.
According to one leading Italian newspaper, it is a sign that the Cold War is now really at an end after 50 long years.
Moving with the times
In 1949, Pope Pius XII excommunicated Communist Party members and their supporters and for years afterwards the church tried to curtail the influence of the Italian Communist Party, which was the most powerful in Europe.
Massimo D'Alema is steeped in old-style Communist tradition, the son of party members who were themselves excommunicated.
But he moved with the times. In 1991, it was D'Alema who led the way in reshaping the Italian Communist party into a new Social Democratic grouping, the left-wing Democrats.
The prime minister recently acknowledged the role played by Pope John Paul in the downfall of the Communist system.
He said the Pope was right about the spiritual void in countries governed by Communist parties and he is paid tribute to him as one of the greatest personalities at the close of the century.