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Benedict to Meet Monti Days Before Pope Resigns and Italy

Pope Benedict XVI will meet Italy’s outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti today, his last audience with a head of government before he resigns his pontificate and a week before national elections.

Monti, whose coalition was running fourth in most polls published before a blackout period began on Feb. 9, will meet the Pope in the Vatican at 6 p.m. Rome time. The audience is one of the last commitments for Benedict, who will step down on Feb. 28, becoming the first pontiff to resign in almost 600 years.

Italy’s vote on Feb. 24 and 25 may produce an hung parliament as the bloc of former premier Silvio Berlusconi has cut the lead of frontrunner Pier Luigi Bersani’s coalition. Bersani risks falling short of a majority in the Senate and he may have to seek an alliance with Monti, who may be able to offer little help should his bloc end up behind the anti-austerity 5 Star movement founded by comic Beppe Grillo.

“The holy father will meet Monti as Italy’s prime minister and not a candidate to the election,” Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said on Feb. 13 at a press conference in Rome in response to a question about whether the event may amount to an improper interference in the election. Catholics represent 95 percent of the Italian population, according to the Vatican Statistics Book for 2010.

Before his resignation, Benedict will also meet with Italy’s President Giorgio Napolitano on Feb. 23.

His papacy will come to end outside the Vatican on Feb. 28 when Benedict boards a helicopter to leave for Castel Gandolfo, his summer residence.

In a conclave likely to be held in mid-March, 117 cardinals from around the word will vote for Bendict’s successor. At the same time, the new Italian parliament will convene for the first time in Rome.

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