POPE John Paul II paid a hospital visit on Wednesday to his 90-year-old agnostic friend, former Italian President Sandro Pertini.
The Pontiff travelled to Rome's Umberto I Polyclinic, greeted the drowsing statesman, and spent half an hour talking with Pertini's wife, Carla, and physicians.
Pertini, Italy's president from 1978 to 1985 and the country's best-loved political figure, collapsed on March 23 during the funeral of a general assassinated by terrorists, and underwent successful surgery on March 26 to receive a heart pacemaker.
The unlikely friendship between the socialist statesman, a declared agnostic, and John Paul stretches back to the beginning of the Polish pontificate.
Auxiliary Archbishop Fiorenzo Angelini of Rome said that in going to see Pertini, "the Holy Father in fact was paying back a visit."
When Mehmet Ali Agca shot and gravely wounded John Paul on May 13, 1981, in St Peter's square, President Pertini was at Rome's Gemelli Polyclinic almost as soon as the Pope came out of emergency surgery and spent hours waiting for news on his condition, returned to the hospital three more times before the Pontiff was released.
Hospital sources at the Umberto I said Pertini very much looked forward to John Paul's visit and scolded hospital personnel afterwards for not letting the Pope stay with him longer.
It was Pertini who accompanied John Paul when the Pope took a surprise one-day ski trip on July 16, 1984, to Mount Adamello in the Italian Alps.