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Unhurt, Benedict XVI delivers Christmas blessing

VATICAN CITY— A “psychologically unstable” woman in a red sweat shirt jumped the barriers in St. Peter’s Basilica and knocked down Pope Benedict XVI as he walked down the central aisle to start the Christmas Eve Mass.

But the 82-year-old Pontiff quickly got up unhurt and proceeded as planned with Thursday’s two-hour service, urging the faithful in his homily to “wake up” from selfishness and petty affairs and find time for God and spiritual matters.

In its formal statement on the episode that shocked the Catholic world, the Vatican identified the woman as Susanna Maiolo, 25, an Italian-Swiss national with psychiatric problems.

The Vatican spokesperson, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Maiolo had been sent to an undisclosed medical facility for “necessary treatment.”

Seeking to play down the incident, Lombardi praised Benedict’s “great self-control and control of the situation.”

“It was an assault, but it wasn’t dangerous because she wasn’t armed,” he said.

Lombardi said it was the second year in a row that Maiolo breached security at the Vatican’s Christmas Eve service.

At the end of last year’s Mass, Maiolo also jumped the barriers and got close to the Pope, but she was quickly blocked on the ground by security personnel. Maiolo was also wearing a red, hooded sweat shirt.

To the city and world

The attack did not stop Benedict from delivering on Friday his traditional Christmas blessing, although he appeared bit unsteady as he approached his chair on the loggia overlooking St. Peter’s Square and was steadied by an attendant.

The Pope spread open his arms, blessed the crowd and delivered his “Urbi et Orbi” speech, Latin for “To the city and the world,” without any problem. He followed with Christmas greetings in 65 different languages that drew sustained cheers and chants from the crowd.

In the speech, the Pope decried the effects of the world financial crisis, conflicts in the Holy Land and Africa, and the plight of the “tiny flock” of Christians in Iraq.

“At times it is subject to violence and injustice, but it remains determined to make its own contribution to the building of a society opposed to the logic of conflict and the rejection of one’s neighbor,” he said.

Video footage

Thursday’s incident was captured by a pilgrim on video, which showed Maiolo in a red, hooded sweat shirt vaulting over the wooden barriers beside the basilica’s main aisle and rushing toward the Pope.

As Maiolo grabbed Benedict’s vestments, security guards took the woman down. According to the Vatican statement, the Pope “lost his balance and he slipped to the floor.”

French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, an 87-year-old Vatican diplomat, also fell to the floor “in the confusion.”

The security breach halted the Pope’s procession as it was making its way toward the main altar. The music stopped and shocked gasps rang out among the thousands who packed the basilica.

Benedict lost his miter and his staff in the fall. He remained on the ground for a few seconds before being helped back up by attendants.

At that point, shouts of “Viva il Papa!” (Long live the Pope!) rang out in the basilica, followed by cheers from the faithful.


Benedict, flanked by tense bodyguards, resumed his walk to the main altar to start the Mass. The Pope appeared unperturbed, although he leaned heavily on aides as he sat down on his chair.

He made no reference to the disturbance after the service started. As a choir sang, he sprinkled incense on the altar and opened the Mass with the traditional wish for peace in Latin.

“To wake up means to leave that private world of one’s own and to enter the common reality,” Benedict said in his homily.

“Conflict and lack of reconciliation in the world stem from the fact that we are locked into our own interests and opinions, into our own little private world.”

Fractured hip

Etchegaray fractured his hip in the commotion and would be operated on at Rome’s Gemelli hospital. Lombardi, however, said Etchegaray’s condition was good.

MaryBeth Burns from Paris, Texas, was about four people away from the woman who jumped the barriers and was filming the Pope’s procession when the commotion started.

“All of a sudden this person sort of flew over the barricade and the Holy Father went down and all the security people were on top of it, a whole pile there, getting her off and him back up,” said Burns, who was visiting Italy with her family on a religious pilgrimage for Christmas.

“I’m really mad because I had a perfect shot lined up,” she added. “I’m still shaking.”

Few people who were watching the Mass on giant screens outside a rain-soaked St. Peter’s Square noticed the Pope had fallen, with many saying either they weren’t looking or had arrived too late.

Too exposed

The incident was the first time a potential attacker came into direct contact with Benedict, underscoring concerns by security analysts who have frequently warned that the Pope is too exposed in his public appearances.

During an open-air audience in St. Peter’s Square in 2007, a mentally unstable German man jumped a security barrier and grabbed the back of the Pope’s open car before security guards swarmed over the attacker.

Then there was the 1981 assassination attempt by Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca on Pope John Paul II, who suffered a severe wound in the abdomen. John Paul was shot as he was riding in an open jeep at the start of his weekly audience in the Vatican piazza.

The Pope is protected by a combination of Swiss Guards, Vatican police and Italian police.

Security searches lax

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, the Vatican has tightened security at papal events. All visitors must pass by police to get into the square, with those entering the basilica going through metal detectors or being scanned by metal-detecting wands.

But Sister Samira, an Indian aide to Vatican officials who attended the service and witnessed Thursday’s incident, said she had never been searched by security personnel whenever she attended papal Masses. She said the same held true for other people in religious garb.

Benedict celebrated this year’s Christmas Eve Mass two hours earlier than the usual midnight starting time in a move by the Vatican to ease the Pontiff’s busy holiday schedule.

Benedict has been remarkably healthy during his five-year pontificate, keeping to a busy schedule and traveling around the world.

In July, however, he broke his wrist during a late-night fall while vacationing in an Alpine chalet. He had to undergo minor surgery and wear a cast for a month.


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