VATICAN CITY — German Chancellor Angela Merkel, mindful of the weight of Christian voters in September elections, made a quick trip to Rome Saturday for a private meeting with Pope Francis, focusing on how Europe's struggling economy should be at the service of the people.
Merkel spoke privately for 45 minutes with the pope at the Apostolic Palace, after exchanging cordial greetings in Germany.
Her Christian Democrat party depends heavily on support from Protestant and Catholic voters, and the chat and photo opportunity could be a welcome campaign boost for a leader largely identified by Europe's economically suffering citizens as a champion of debt reduction even at the cost of painful austerity across much of the continent.
On Thursday, Francis blasted what he called a "cult of money" in a global financial system that ends up tyrannizing, not helping, the world's poor.
Asked whether they had also talked about the pope's recent criticism, Merkel said that they spoke about the regulation of the financial markets.
"The regulation of the financial markets is our central problem, our central task," said Merkel, who met with reporters on the Vatican grounds. "We are moving ahead, but we are not yet where we want to be, where we could say that a derailment of the guard rails of social market won't happen again."
Merkel added: "It ought to be like this: the economy is there to serve the people. In the last few years, this hasn't been the case at all everywhere."
Italy, Spain, Ireland, Portugal and especially Greece, have seen governments concentrate on debt reduction while slashing state spending. With growth stymied, unemployment, especially among young people, has soared. Businesses, many of them family-run in southern Europe, have failed as bank lending dried up.
The chancellor also said the pope had stressed that the world needs a strong and just Europe and described the overall conversation has encouraging.
Merkel is currently campaigning for re-election in September's general elections. Half of Germany's population is Catholic. In Bavaria especially, there is a strong conservative and Catholic tradition.
According to a Vatican statement, Francis and Merkel concentrated on topics of "common interest, including the socio-political, economic and religious situation in Europe and in the world."
"In particular, they spoke about safeguarding human rights, about the persecutions faced by Christians, about religious freedom and of international collaboration to promote peace," the Vatican said.
Francis, who is Argentine, has picked up on campaigns by the two previous popes, the Polish John Paul II and German Benedict XVI, to reinvigorate what the Catholic church sees as flagging religious enthusiasm on a continent with Christian roots, including dwindling number of churchgoers in much of Western Europe.
The Vatican also uses papal visits with major leaders to seek allies in its lobbying on behalf of Christians who face discrimination and in some cases physical violence in parts of the world.
Merkel told reporters she had reflected during her flight to Rome earlier in the day how both she and Francis has spent part of their lives in countries once under dictatorships -- her native East Germany under Soviet-influenced communist rule, and the pope's Argentine homeland, which had formerly been ruled by a bloody military dictatorship.
Francis and Merkel also exchanged views on Europe, which the Vatican described as a "community of values" with responsibilities in the world, "urging commitment by all secular and religious components toward favoring development based on the dignity of the human person and inspired by the principles of assistance and solidarity."
There was no immediate indication if Francis would visit Germany, which Merkel said she invited him to visit.
She left him with gifts including a boxed set of 107 CDs of classical music directed by German maestro Wilhelm Furtwaengler. "I don't know if you will have time to listen" to them all, Merkel told him in German. Francis also seemed pleased by the other gift, three volumes of poetry by Friedrich Hoelderlin, a poet he is known to enjoy.
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