December 28, 2009 // Uncategorized

Pope's Christmas marked by calls for charity, security incident

By John Thavis

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Pope Benedict XVI celebrated Christmas with a call for unselfish charity and solidarity with the suffering, and underlined the message two days later by lunching with the poor at a Rome soup kitchen.

The pope’s Christmas was marred by a security scare on Christmas Eve, when a mentally unbalanced woman rushed the 82-year-old pontiff and knocked him to the marble floor of St. Peter’s Basilica. The pope was unharmed but French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray suffered a broken hip when he fell in the confusion.

The incident occurred as the pope processed into the basilica at the start of the 10 p.m. Mass. Amateur videos posted on YouTube showed a woman wearing a red sweatshirt leaping over the security barrier and grabbing the pope’s vestments, as Vatican security guards swarmed above them.

The alarmed congregation inside the basilica broke into applause when the pope quickly rose to his feet and continued the procession down the main aisle, looking somewhat shaken. The liturgy proceeded without further incident.

Vatican sources confirmed that the woman was the same person who attempted to rush the pope at Midnight Mass last year, but was tackled by guards before she could reach the pontiff. The woman, 25-year-old Susanna Maiolo, an Italian and Swiss citizen, was taken into custody for psychiatric evaluations.

In his Christmas Eve homily, the pope said conflict in the world stems from the fact that “we are locked into our own interests and our desires.” He said many people have become “religiously tone-deaf” and unable to perceive God, absorbed by worldly affairs and professional occupations.

“For most people, the things of God are not given priority…. And so the great majority of us tend to postpone them. First we do what seems urgent here and now. In the list of priorities God is often more or less at the end. We can always deal with that later, we tend to think,” he said.

Despite this mentality, he said, a path for discovering and appreciating God exists for everyone. It is a path marked with signs, he said, and at Christmas God’s sign is that “he makes himself small; he becomes a child; he lets us touch him and he asks for our love.”

On Christmas Day, the pope delivered his message and blessing “urbi et orbi” — to the city of Rome and to the world — from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica. He prayed for peace in world trouble spots like the Holy Land, Iraq, Sri Lanka and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In Europe and North America, he said, the church “urges people to leave behind the selfish and technicist mentality, to advance the common good and to show respect for the persons who are the most defenseless, starting with the unborn.”

The pope said the church began with Christ’s birth “in the lowly cave of Bethlehem” and through the centuries has become a light for humanity, most recently as it has experienced a “grave financial crisis” and a more general moral crisis.

The pope then offered Christmas greetings in 65 languages, saying in English: “May the birth of the Prince of Peace remind the world where its true happiness lies; and may your hearts be filled with hope and joy, for the savior has been born for us.”

The pope’s Christmas message included a call for “an attitude of acceptance and welcome” for the millions of people who migrate from their homelands, driven by hunger, intolerance or environmental degradation.

On Dec. 27, the pope lunched with a mostly immigrant group at a Rome soup kitchen and language school run by the Sant’Egidio Community, a Catholic lay organization. The white-robed pontiff came with a carload of gifts that he presented to more than 30 children served by the center.

The pope was cheered as he entered the dining room for a meal of lasagna, meatballs and lentils, followed by cake and spumante. He listened during the meal to personal stories of persecution, arduous immigration routes and homelessness.

Among those seated at the pope’s table was Qorbanali Esmaili, a 34-year-old political refugee from Afghanistan; Roukia Daud Abdulle, a 63-year-old Somali woman who came to Italy so that her disabled son could receive care; and Boban Trajkovic, 24, who lives in a Gypsy camp on the outskirts of Rome.

The event in the popular Rome quarter of Trastevere drew hundreds of residents who cheered the pope when he arrived and watched video pictures of part of his visit on a giant TV screen outside. They applauded when the pontiff greeted 25-year-old Aniello Bosco, who gets around the neighborhood in a wheelchair; he was abandoned by his family because of a disability.

“I am here to tell you that I am close to you and I love you, and that your experiences are not far from my thoughts,” the pope said in a speech, before being serenaded with a Christmas carol.

Outside the center, the pope stopped to personally greet many of the residents who packed the adjacent street. Despite the Christmas Eve incident at the Vatican, no attempt was made to keep people at a distance from the pontiff.

Earlier Dec. 27, the pope marked the feast of the Holy Family at his noon blessing at the Vatican, saying that like modern immigrants, Jesus, Mary and Joseph endured many trials and hardships. He emphasized that the family is the primary “school” of values for younger generations today.

One of the best services Christians can offer is the example of a sound family, “founded on marriage between a man and a woman,” he said.

On Dec. 26, the feast of St. Stephen, the pope noted that the saint, known as the first martyr, was also the church’s first deacon, who gave special service to the poor. His example shows that love for the poor is a privileged way to live the Gospel and witness it credibly to the world, he said.

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