High security for Pope at Rome Mass


Pope Benedict XVI greets the faithful as he arrives to celebrate Christmas Mass in S. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican (AP)

Pope Benedict XVI has ushered in Christmas with an evening Mass amid heightened security concerns following the package bombings at two Rome embassies and previous security breaches at the Vatican.

But Benedict proceeded down the central aisle of St Peter’s Basilica at the start and end of the Mass without incident last night.

With his normal phalanx of bodyguards on either side, he stopped several times to bless babies held up to him from the pews.

During the same service in 2008 and 2009, a mentally-disturbed woman lunged at the Pope, last year managing to pull him to the ground.

Last night’s service saw no such interruptions. In his homily, Benedict recalled the birth of Jesus and prayed that the faithful today become more like Christ.

“Help us to recognise your face in others who need our assistance, in those who are suffering or forsaken, in all people, and help us to live together with you as brothers and sisters, so as to become one family, your family,” he said.

In addition to the past breaches, security was also tight following the package bombings a day earlier at the Swiss and Chilean embassies, for which anarchists claimed responsibility. The two people who opened the envelopes were injured.

The bombings added to tensions in the capital following a violent, anti-government protest last week in the historic centre and a fake bomb found on Tuesday on Rome’s underground system.

The Vatican identified the Pope’s 2008 and 2009 Christmas Eve assailant as Susanna Maiolo, a Swiss-Italian national with a history of psychiatric problems.

In 2008 the Pope’s security detail blocked her from getting to him. But last year she jumped the wooden security barrier along the basilica’s central aisle, grabbed Benedict’s vestments and pulled him to the ground before bodyguards toppled her. The pontiff was not hurt and continued with the Mass. But Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, a retired Vatican diplomat who was near the Pope, suffered a broken hip in the fall.

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