|Pope Apeals for End to Child Abuse
December 26, 2008
VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI celebrated Christmas Midnight Mass early yesterday by sending out an appeal for children who are abused, forced to live on the street or serve as soldiers.
He also called for peace in the Middle East – ahead of a possible trip to the region next year – telling the faithful at the traditional birthplace of Jesus the silent night of Christmas overpowers the voice of guns.
In the splendor of St. Peter's Basilica, Benedict marked the birth of Jesus with a call to the faithful to help children who are denied the love of their parents and those who are exploited across the world.
"The Child of Bethlehem summons us once again to do everything in our power to put an end to the suffering of these children," the Pope said.
Delivering his homily in Italian, Benedict recalled the plight of "street children who do not have the blessing of a family home, of those children who are brutally exploited as soldiers and made instruments of violence, instead of messengers of reconciliation and peace."
He also spoke of minors who are "victims of the industry of pornography and every other appalling form of abuse, and thus are traumatized in the depths of their soul."
The Pope did not specifically mention the issue of lawsuits and other complaints brought in the United States and elsewhere by Catholics who allege they were sexually abused by priests when they were youngsters.
In the past year the Pope has repeatedly addressed the issue of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy, but did not raise it in his Christmas homily.
Benedict apologized for sexual abuse of minors by clergy and met victims during a July trip to Australia. He also met victims in the US in April.
Middle East call for peace
As he recalled the birth of Jesus in biblical Bethlehem, Benedict's thoughts turned to the Holy Land and the pontiff prayed for an end to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
"Let us think also of the place named Bethlehem, of the land in which Jesus lived, and which he loved so deeply," he said. "Let us pray that peace will be established there, that hatred and violence will cease. Let us pray for mutual understanding, that hearts will be opened, so that borders can be opened."
Benedict is expected to visit the Holy Land in May for what would be the first papal trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories since the late Pope John Paul II traveled there in a 2000 pilgrimage.
"With joy we would like to announce to you the desire of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI to visit the Holy Land as a pilgrim next May," Fuad Twal, the Catholic leader in the Holy Land, told reporters.
It was the first official confirmation of Benedict's widely mooted first trip to the region since being elected pope in 2005.
"The supreme pontiff wishes to pray with us and for us, and to acquire a first-hand knowledge of the hard conditions of our region," Twal said in his Christmas message.
"We are confident in the Lord that this pontifical pilgrimage and pastoral visit will be a blessing for all of us as well as a substantial contribution to better understanding among the various nations of the region, lifting the barriers and helping solve the problems, removing distress and consolidating good relations among people, religions and denominations," Twal said.
He did not give specific dates. "We are studying the program with the local authorities," he said.
Last week the Italian newspaper Il Foglio said the pope would travel to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories from May 8 to 15.
As Midnight Mass began on Thursday, the 81-year-old Benedict, dressed in white and gold-colored vestments, walked in a procession up the basilica's main aisle, smiling and stopping several times to shake outstretched hands and bless children.
As a choir intoned a Psalm, the pope sprinkled incense on the central altar under Bernini's towering bronze baldachin before opening the service with the traditional wish for peace in Latin: "Pax vobis" ("Peace be with you"). The faithful responded: "Et cum spiritu tuo" ("And also with you").
As Benedict left the basilica through the main aisle after the service, a person who had jumped the barriers got close to the Pope but was quickly blocked on the ground by security.
The Vatican's spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said he did not know who the person was but added that the disturbance hadn't caused any problems.
"The Holy Father continued on his way calmly. I imagine it was someone who wanted to greet him or pay homage to him," Lombardi said by telephone. "I have no reason to believe he was armed."
Thousands of pilgrims, Romans and tourists packed the basilica for the midnight service. For those unable to enter there were giant screens set up in St. Peter's Square.
Earlier, as night fell on Christmas Eve, Benedict appeared briefly at his studio window to bless the crowd in chilly St. Peter's Square and light a single candle in a sign of peace.
Before the Pope appeared in his darkened studio to light the flame, the Vatican's No. 2 official, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said the gesture was an invitation to all to pray for peace and think of those who are less fortunate.
"I say to all those who are listening, light the candle of peace inside yourself, light the candle of welcoming and understanding that will help you listen and share the cry of the poor and of those who suffer," Bertone said.
The Vatican's Christmas festivities began with the unveiling of the larger-than-life Nativity scene next to the Vatican's largest-ever Christmas tree in St. Peter's Square. Children in red-and-white Santa hats sang Italian holiday hymns as the Vatican's Gendarmeria band played alongside.
On Thursday Benedict delivers his traditional Christmas Day "Urbi et Orbi" speech – Latin for "to the city and to the world" – from the balcony of St. Peter's, in which he often touches on current events and issues of concern to the Vatican. He then is expected to issue Christmas greetings to the faithful in more than 60 languages.
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