- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 15, 2007

ROME — Pope Benedict XVI celebrated his 80th birthday a day early with about 50,000 pilgrims and tourists at a Mass in St. Peter’s Square yesterday, thanking God for his long life and his two-year pontificate that has disarmed many liberal critics by focusing on divine love in an upbeat message.

“To all, I say the most heartfelt ‘thank you,’ and I extend that to the whole Church, which, like a real family, surrounds me with its affection particularly at this time,” the Roman Catholic pontiff said in a sermon.

He also thanked the members of his own family, dead and living, for their support.

“I thank God because I was able to experience what family means,” he said. Benedict beamed broadly during the ceremony, looking elegant in gold vestments over white robes as he stood on the flower-bedecked steps of St. Peter’s Basilica.

The throng of faithful included priests, nuns and women wearing the traditional dress and feather-trimmed hats of the German pope’s native Bavaria.

Knowing that many people pray for him gives him joy, said the pope, who was elected April 19, 2005.

He expressed gratitude to those who tolerate his shortcomings.

“For this, I would like to thank the Lord and all of you with all my heart.”

The pope, who last week published his first book since becoming pontiff, also recalled his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who died at 84, April 2, 2005.

“He lived under two dictatorships,” said Benedict, referring to Nazism and communism. “And in his direct contact with poverty, need and violence, he deeply experienced the power of darkness, which also besets the world today.”

The first phase of the process leading to John Paul’s beatification, the last step before sainthood ended earlier this month when church investigators presented the Vatican with evidence of a purported miracle performed by the late pontiff.

Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, 46, a French nun with Parkinson’s disease, says her illness disappeared after she and other nuns prayed to John Paul to intercede with God to heal her.

Benedict, a dedicated pianist, will mark his birthday today in a lunch with cardinals and a concert of Mozart and Dvorak in his honor in the Vatican.

As John Paul’s personal theologian, the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was reviled by many liberals as an unbending defender of conservative Church doctrine.

But in his first two years on St. Peter’s throne, he has surprised critics by writing and speaking much more about God’s love than about divisive issues such as contraception and homosexuality, Vatican watchers say.

There is growing speculation that he is on the verge of removing restrictions on the celebration of the ancient Tridentine Rite of the Mass recited in Latin, which liberals see as elitist.

Last month, the pope issued an elegant document titled “Sacramentum Carititatis,” which contained explicit instructions on the greater use of Latin.

The pope caused uproar and demonstrations around the Muslim world last year with comments he made about Islam at Regensburg University and seemed to return to his former role as a guardian of traditional Catholic theology when he censored a leading liberation theologian, the Rev. Jon Sobrino, a priest in El Salvador, ahead of the visit that he will make next month to Brazil.

But Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, or prime minister, said the pope had a “robustness and clarity in his teaching” that stemmed from “his noble language, and its efficiency of persuasion.”

“He has always defended simple faith over the ambiguous and erroneous doctrines from the so-called wise men of this world.”

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