Pope welcomes Christmas with Mass


Pope Benedict XVI is flanked by his aide George Gaenswein as he lights a candle at his studio window overlooking St Peter's Square. (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 two previous Christmas Eve security breaches at the Vatican.

Benedict began festivities as night fell by silently lighting a candle in his studio window overlooking St Peter’s Square, though heavy rain kept the traditionally large crowd to a minimum.

He then celebrated Mass in St Peter’s Basilica.

During that service in 2008 and 2009, a woman with mental health problems lunged at the Pope – and last year she managed to pull him to the ground as he walked down the aisle.

More vigilant security measures were also expected after package bombings at the Swiss and Chilean embassies on Thursday, for which anarchists claimed responsibility. The two people who opened the envelopes were injured.

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

But all eyes are expected to be on the crowds inside St Peter’s – particularly on anyone wearing a red hooded sweatshirt.

For the past two years during Christmas Eve Mass, a woman wearing a red sweatshirt has lunged at the Pope as he walked down the main aisle.

The Vatican has identified her 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 in 2009, she jumped the wooden security barrier along the aisle, grabbed Benedict’s vestments and pulled him to the ground before the Pope’s bodyguards toppled her.

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