Vatican City Pope Benedict XVI clasped the hands of the parents of Madeleine McCann and blessed a photo of the missing 4-year-old, telling them Wednesday he would pray for the safe return of the little girl who disappeared a month ago in Portugal.
Kate and Gerry McCann, Roman Catholics from Britain, said the pope's words and blessings would sustain them as they press their campaign to find Madeleine and bring her home.
The brief meeting came at the end of Benedict's weekly general audience, when he regularly sees VIPs, visiting clergy, the sick and others needing comfort. The McCanns had a front-row seat - arranged after British Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor wrote the Vatican on their behalf.
"He was very kind, very sincere," Kate McCann told a packed news conference after the audience.
She said Benedict assured them he would "continue to pray for Madeleine's safe return."
"His touch and thoughts and words were more tender than we could have hoped and that will sustain us during this most difficult time," Gerry McCann said, adding that Benedict immediately recognized Madeleine's photograph.
The girl disappeared May 3 when her parents left her and her 2-year-old twin siblings alone in their hotel room while they went to a restaurant in the hotel complex in the Portuguese resort of Praia da Luz.
Police have checked dozens of reports about Madeleine's possible whereabouts without result. They questioned a British man but released him without charge.
A Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Ciro Benedettini, said the pope was particularly touched by the girl's disappearance.
"We are talking about a family drama that has touched world public opinion. It could not but touch the Holy Father, especially since these people are Catholics," Benedettini said. "The Holy Father is considered the father of all, therefore he was personally touched as a father."
Benedict receives far fewer visitors in private audiences than his predecessor, John Paul II. People seeking to have a word with him, shake his hand or receive his blessing generally apply through local bishops or Vatican-connected clergy to get a front-row seat at weekly public audiences.
"Obviously we have very mixed emotions about being here, and of course why we are here," Gerry McCann said as he arrived at St. Peter's Square. "In normal circumstances it would be one of the most exciting things we could do in our own lifetimes, but very much on our minds is the fact that we are here without Madeleine."
The McCanns recently prayed at the pilgrimage site in Fatima, Portugal, for their daughter's safe return.
At the press conference, the couple outlined plans in the search for their daughter. They said they would travel to Spain, Germany and the Netherlands - countries that send many tourists to the resort area of Portugal.