Vatican City Pope Benedict XVI’s Christmas Eve Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica got off to a tumultuous start Thursday after an apparently deranged woman jumped the barriers and knocked him down on his way to the altar.
In his homily, delivered unflappably after the incident, Benedict urged the world to “wake up” from selfishness and petty affairs, and find time for God and spiritual matters.
The 82-year-old pope was unhurt after his fall, said a Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Ciro Benedettini.
Earlier, in Bethlehem, thousands of pilgrims from around the world descended on the traditional birthplace of Jesus, for the most upbeat Christmas celebrations the Palestinian town has seen in years.
While the Holy Land’s top Roman Catholic clergyman reminded followers that peace remains elusive, while the threat of sectarian violence in the Islamic world and the lava spilling from a volcano in the Philippines clouded the celebrations for other Christian communities across the globe.
At the Vatican, witness video obtained by The Associated Press showed a woman dressed in a red, hooded sweat shirt vaulting over the wooden barriers that cordoned off the basilica’s main aisle and rushing toward the pope before being swarmed by bodyguards. She grabbed the pope’s vestments as she was taken down, with Benedict seemingly falling on top of her.
The commotion happened as the pope’s procession was making its way toward the main altar and shocked gasps rang out through the public that packed the basilica. The procession came to a halt and security rushed to the trouble spot.
Benedettini said the woman who pushed the pope appeared to be mentally unstable and had been arrested by Vatican police. He said she also knocked down Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, who was taken to hospital for a check up.
“During the procession an unstable person jumped a barrier and knocked down the Holy Father,” Benedettini told The Associated Press by telephone. “(The pope) quickly got up and continued the procession.”
In Bethlehem, residents hemmed in by an Israeli security barrier and still recovering from years of violence, celebrated their town’s annual day in the spotlight along with pilgrims and tourists. Visitors milled around Manger Square, mingling with clergymen, camera crews and locals hawking food and trinkets.
Christmas in Bethlehem has its incongruous elements — the troops of Palestinian boy scouts who wear kilts and play bagpipes in one of the town’s holiday traditions, for example, or the inflatable Santa Clauses hanging from church pillars and storefronts looking out of place and overdressed in this Middle Eastern town with not a snowflake in sight.
Jeffrey Lynch, 36, a sanitation worker from New York City, was taking a tour through the Church of the Nativity, the fourth-century Crusader era structure built atop the grottos that mark the spot believed to be the birthplace of Jesus.
“It’s a miracle being here on Christmas Eve. It’s a lifetime opportunity. I wish everybody could be here,” he said.
But the Holy Land’s top Roman Catholic cleric, Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, reminded listeners in a holiday address that peace remains out of reach. “The wish that we most want, we most hope for, is not coming. We want peace,” Twal said after he passed into Bethlehem in a traditional holiday procession from nearby Jerusalem.