- The Washington Times - Monday, December 28, 2009

VATICAN CITY | Pope Benedict XVI waded into a crowd of well-wishers in Rome on Sunday, just days after he was knocked down by a woman at a Christmas Eve Mass.

It was the 82-year-old pontiff’s first appearance outside the Vatican since the attack, which left him unhurt but raised security concerns.

Security was tight, but Benedict greeted well-wishers as usual. He kissed some children and caressed the hands of others as he entered a soup kitchen operated by the Sant’Egidio Community, a lay Catholic group based in Rome, a few miles from the Vatican.

Many in the crowd applauded. Some shouted, “Viva il papa,” or “Long live the pope.”

The pope has maintained his busy holiday schedule despite the incident, in which a woman jumped a barricade in St. Peter’s Basilica and pulled the pope to the ground as she was subdued by guards.

Benedict rose quickly and celebrated the Mass. The next morning, he delivered his traditional Christmas Day message.

The Vatican said the woman was mentally unstable and identified her as 25-year-old Susanna Maiolo, a Swiss-Italian national. She remains in a clinic for treatment.

It was the second time the same woman had jumped the barrier at a Christmas Eve Mass. In 2008, she failed to get to the pope.

The Vatican said it would review security procedures, but the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a spokesman, said the Vatican could not ensure the pope’s security 100 percent because he is regularly surrounded by tens of thousands of people for his weekly audiences, Masses, papal greetings and other events.

On Sunday, the pope delivered the traditional Angelus prayer from his studio window overlooking St. Peter’s Square before traveling to the soup kitchen in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood.

There, he shared lasagna, meatballs with lentils and mashed potatoes with the poor and later gave Christmas presents to about 30 children at the center.

According to the Sant’Egidio Community, among those sitting at his table were a 34-year-old homeless Afghan refugee; a 35-year-old Nigerian who arrived in Italy four years ago after grueling travel across the Libyan desert; a Somali woman, 63, who came to Italy to give her disabled son better care; and a 90-year-old Italian who receives food supplies from the community.

The pontiff said he heard tales of human suffering during the meal but told the poor and homeless that he was close to them and loved them.

“I was moved because I’m not a Christian and I’m not Italian, and I’ve come from far away,” Qorbanali Esmaili, the Afghan refugee, told the Associated Press after the event. “The pope sat down at the table with all of us; he is a father but also a friend.”

Although Benedict was unhurt in Thursday’s incident, a retired Vatican diplomat, French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, fractured his hip in the commotion.

The cardinal underwent surgery Sunday at Rome’s Gemelli hospital. The Vatican said the operation was successful and the 87-year-old cardinal was in good condition.

The assailant was being kept in the psychiatric ward of a hospital in a town outside Rome called Subiaco, according to Italian news reports.

The president of the Vatican’s tribunal, Giuseppe Dalla Torre, said he expected the investigation into the incident to take a few weeks. Among the key aspects to assess is whether the woman was mentally sound at the moment of the attack, Mr. Dalla Torre told the bishops’ daily newspaper Avvenire. The assailant was not armed.

• Giovanni Fontana contributed to this report from Rome.

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