AP 06/02 07:41 EDT V0692 1994. The Associated Press

ROME (AP) -- President Clinton and Pope John Paul II, at odds over abortion, conferred Thursday on the divisive issue at a 40-minute Vatican meeting. Clinton said they discussed "responsible population growth."

The president praised the "constancy and commitment" of the Roman Catholic church following their meeting. "The Catholic church has brought together faith and action, word and deed," Clinton said.

On the first leg of a trip celebrating the 50th anniversary of D-Day, Clinton began his day jogging through the streets of Rome and planned his first meeting with Italy's controversial new prime minister.

The Vatican conference with the pontiff and discussions with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi led Clinton's schedule before a late afternoon speech at Campidoglio Square, for centuries the seat of Rome's imperial power.

The speech -- two days before the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Rome -- raises the curtain on celebrations of Allied landings in Italy and France. Hillary Rodham Clinton joined her husband as the Vatican meeting ended.

Vatican officials indicated beforehand that the pontiff wanted to bring up his concern about the U.S. president's efforts to expand abortion rights. The officials said the pontiff was particularly concerned by administration efforts to liberalize abortion language in a U.N. plan aimed at slowing global population growth.

However, Clinton did not dwell on abortion differences in his brief remarks after the meeting other than to say they discussed how to reach "responsible population growth and still reaffirm our common commitment to the family."

Clinton said the discussion also touched on the role of Islamic states in the world, Russia and the Middle East. He said he thanked the pope for the Vatican's move earlier this year establishing diplomatic ties with Israel.

Clinton felt his meeting with the pope was "awe inspiring," White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers reported. She said the president and the pope had agreed on some issues, disagreed on others. Obviously, the latter included abortion. She said Clinton and the pope also discussed the risk of nuclear weapons development in North Korea.

The pope, taking Clinton by the hand, chatted in English about their last meeting, in August in Denver. Then John Paul, appearing frail and moving stiffly after his recent hip surgery, invited Clinton to sit down and continued speaking to him in English.

The meeting lasted 40 minutes. The two exchanged gifts: Clinton gave the pope a map of America in the 1800s; the pope gave the president a mosaic representing the Colosseum.

After a morning jog, Clinton began his official schedule with a call on Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro. The job of president in Italy is mostly ceremonial.

Later, Clinton was to visit the newly restored Sistine Chapel. Mrs. Clinton accompanied her husband.

Three weeks in office, Berlusconi has drawn sharp criticism from politicians in France, Belgium and Germany because his government, for the first time since World War II, has brought to power politicians from a party with neo-fascist roots.

Berlusconi, a billionaire media tycoon, insists that the National Alliance, one of three parties in his conservative coalition government, has broken with its fascist heritage.

Rome was Clinton's first stop on an eight-day journey to Italy, England and France. The highlight will be a huge ceremony in Normandy on Monday marking the June 6, 1944, invasion that broke Hitler's heavily fortified Atlantic Wall and led to the end of World War II.

The trip refocuses attention on widespread unease about Clinton's global leadership after conflicting signals on Bosnia, Haiti and other foreign policy problems. Recent public opinion polls found his foreign-policy approval rating had dipped to 40 percent or less.

The commemorative military celebrations also recall the struggle of America's commander in chief, as a young man, to escape the draft during Vietnam.

A White House official speaking on condition of anonymity said there was concern that it may appear Clinton is stressing ceremony while immediate problems are bearing down elsewhere. The official said that during the flight to Italy, Clinton and his top foreign policy advisers discussed the need for close and frequent communication on foreign problems in spots like Haiti and North Korea while Clinton is concentrating on D-Day events.

Clinton also conferred with Leon Panetta, his budget director, who is to translate a portion of Clinton's speech Thursday to the citizens of Rome.

It was past midnight when Clinton's plane landed at Rome's Ciampino Airport after an eight-hour flight from Washington. There was only a brief welcoming ceremony with the playing of the American and Italian national anthems.

Immediately afterward, Clinton was driven to Villa Taverna, the residence of U.S. Ambassador Reginald Bartholomew. The palatial villa, outside the walls of Rome, dates to 955 A.D.

Abortion is an issue on which Clinton and the pope have irreconcilable differences. During his visit to Denver last August, the pope raised sharp objections to Clinton's efforts to expand abortion rights.

Vatican officials say the pontiff is particularly upset by administration efforts to liberalize abortion language in a U.N. plan aimed at slowing global population growth.

Under the Reagan and Bush administrations, the United States refused to contribute to the U.N. population fund on grounds the fund was involved in forced abortions in China.

A letter to Clinton from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, made public Tuesday, said, "When our government advocates population control through abortion, contraception and sterilization, it is not a force for freedom but an agent of coercion." The White House is exploring milder language for the population control policy but is not retreating from the policy itself, officials say.

On Friday, Clinton is to visit the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery at Nettuno, where 7,862 Americans are buried. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and Senate Republican leader Bob Dole of Kansas will accompany Clinton. Both senators were wounded in the Italian campaign.