VATICAN CITY | A woman jumped the barriers in St. Peter’s Basilica and knocked down Pope Benedict XVI as he walked down the main aisle to begin Mass on Christmas Eve.
The 82-year-old pope was unhurt and quickly got up, said a Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Ciro Benedettini. Footage aired on Italy’s RAI state TV showed a woman dressed in a red, hooded sweat shirt vaulting over the wooden barriers and rushing the pope before being swarmed by bodyguards.
Video shot by a witness showed the woman grabbing the pope’s vestments as she was taken down, with Benedict seemingly falling on top of her.
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, a few shouts of “viva il papa!” (long live the pope!) rang out, followed by cheers from the faithful, witnesses said.
The commotion occurred as the pope’s procession was making its way toward the main altar. Shocked gasps rang out through the public that packed the basilica. The procession came to a halt and security rushed to the trouble spot.
Father 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 a hospital for a checkup.
“During the procession an unstable person jumped a barrier and knocked down the Holy Father,” Father Benedettini said by telephone. “[The pope] quickly got up and continued the procession.”
After the incident, Benedict, flanked by tense bodyguards, resumed his walk to the basilica’s main altar to start the Mass. He did appear somewhat shaken and leaned heavily on aides and an armrest as he sat down in his chair.
Benedict made no reference to the incident as the service started. As a choir sang, he sprinkled incense on the altar before opening the Mass with the traditional wish for peace in Latin: “Pax vobis” (“Peace be with you”). The faithful responded: “Et cum spiritu tuo” (“And also with you.”)
It was the second year in a row in which there was a security breach at the service. At the end of last year’s Mass, a woman, also dressed in red sweat shirt, who had jumped the barriers got close to the pope but was quickly blocked on the ground by security.
Father Benedettini said it was not immediately known whether the same woman was behind Thursday’s incident.
In the West Bank town of Bethlehem, thousands of pilgrims from around the world descended on the traditional birthplace of Jesus, greeted by choruses, scout troops and rock bands for the most upbeat Christmas celebrations the Palestinian town has seen in years.
But the Holy Land’s top Roman Catholic clergyman reminded followers that peace remains elusive. 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,” he said after he passed into Bethlehem in a traditional holiday procession from nearby Jerusalem.
Some Christians in other far-flung parts of the world also saw gloom edge out the holiday cheer.
In Iraq, Baghdad’s small remaining Christian minority was to celebrate midnight Mass in daylight for security reasons, and churches were under heavy guard. A bombing this week targeting a 1,200-year-old church in Mosul killed two passers-by, underscoring Iraqi Christians’ concerns.
In Baghdad, a marble palace once occupied by Saddam Hussein housed an impromptu Christmas celebration for U.S. soldiers and others far from home.
Far to the east, in the shadow of the erupting Mayon volcano in the Philippines, thousands of families were spending Christmas Eve in shelters as the volcano belched out 20 gray ash columns Thursday, some of them a mile high.