Prime Minister Stephen Harper has met with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican, taking advantage of a rare opportunity to have a private audience with the 82-year-old Catholic leader.

Harper met with the Pope on Saturday morning, following the wrap-up of the Group of Eight summit in L'Aquila, Italy.

The prime minister had a brief chat in French with the Pope about the G8 summit, before having a private talk in the Apostolical palace library.

At the end of the 20-minute long private meeting, Harper had a chance to introduce his family to the Pope.

Harper's wife, Laureen, and children, Ben and Rachel, were present for an exchange of gifts with the Pope and to pose for pictures.

Pope Benedict was given a vase created by Toronto glassblower Andrew Kuntz. In return, the Pope gave Harper a custom glass fountain pen that is made to look like one of the four pillars of St. Peter's Basilica.

Later Saturday, the Prime Minister's Office issued a news release about the meeting.

"It was an honour to meet Pope Benedict and hear his perspective on a number of important issues, including human rights and an ethical response to the global economic crisis," Harper said in the release.

"I expressed my deep appreciation for the Holy Father's moral and humanitarian leadership as an advocate of human dignity, peace and religious liberty, and for the spiritual leadership he provides to Catholics in Canada and throughout the world."

According to the release, the pope and the prime minister discussed "a range of international issues," as well as human rights and religious matters.

Harper was the fifth national leader to visit the Pope since the start of the G8 summit, following U.S. President Barack Obama and the leaders of Japan, Korea and Australia.

The last time a Canadian prime minister had a face-to-face visit with a sitting pope was in July 2002, when Jean Chretien met with Pope John Paul II in Toronto.

With files from The Canadian Press