Thousands attend Mass at Vatican
Easter service infused with defense of embattled pope
VATICAN CITY – It was the Catholic calendar’s holiest moment – the Mass celebrating the resurrection of Christ. But with Pope Benedict XVI accused of failing to protect children from abusive priests, Easter Sunday also was a high-profile opportunity to play defense.
“Holy Father, on your side are the people of God,” Cardinal Angelo Sodano told the pontiff, whom victims of clergy sexual abuse accuse of helping to shape and perpetuate a climate of cover-up. Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, dismissed those claims as “petty gossip.”
The ringing tribute at the start of a Mass attended by tens of thousands in St. Peter’s Square marked an unusual departure from the Vatican’s Easter rituals, infusing the tradition-steeped religious ceremony with an air of a papal pep rally.
Benedict looked weary during much of the Mass, the highlight of a heavy Holy Week schedule. But as he listened intently to Sodano’s paean, a smile broke across the pope’s face, and when the cardinal finished speaking, Benedict rose from his chair in front of the altar to embrace him.
Sodano’s praise for Benedict as well as the church’s 400,000 priests worldwide cranked up a vigorous campaign by the Holy See to counter what it calls a “vile” smear operation orchestrated by anti-Vatican media aimed at weakening the papacy and its moral authority.
Sodano said the faithful came to “rally close around you, successor to (St.) Peter, bishop of Rome, the unfailing rock of the holy church” amid the joy of Easter.
“We are deeply grateful to you for the strength of spirit and apostolic courage with which you announce the Gospel,” said Sodano, who sought to assure Benedict that the scandals were not costing him credibility among his flock. “Holy Father, on your side are the people of God, who do not allow themselves to be influenced by the petty gossip of the moment, by the trials which sometimes buffet the community of believers,” he said.
The cardinal also came to the defense of all the Catholic priests who “generously serve the people of God, in parishes, recreation centers, schools, hospitals and many other places, as well as in the missions in the most remote parts of the world.”
Easter Sunday Mass was the last major Holy Week appearance by the pope in Rome for the thousands of faithful who have poured into the city.
Worshippers cheered Benedict at the end of Sunday’s two-hour-long Mass in the cobblestone square bedecked with daffodils, tulips and azaleas.
After the Mass, Benedict, who turns 83 on April 16, moved to the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica to deliver his “Urbi et Orbi” message – Latin for “to the city and to the world” – which analyzes humanity’s failings and hopes.
He singled out the “trials and sufferings,” including persecution and even death, of Christians in Iraq and Pakistan, and of people in Haiti and Chile, devastated by earthquakes. He hoped for peaceful coexistence to win out over criminal violence in Latin American countries plagued by drug trafficking, and promised to pray for peace in the Middle East.
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