VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI ushered in Christmas Eve with an evening Mass on Friday amid heightened security concerns following the package bombings at two Rome embassies and Christmas Eve security breaches at the Vatican the past two years.
Benedict processed down the central aisle of St. Peter’s Basilica at the start and end of the Mass without incident; with his normal phalanx of bodyguards on either side, he stopped several times to bless babies held up to him from the pews.
During the same service in 2008 and 2009, a mentally disturbed woman lunged at the pope as he processed down the aisle — and last year she managed to pull him to the ground.
Friday’s service saw no such interruptions. In his homily, Benedict recalled the birth of Jesus which is commemorated on Christmas and prayed that the faithful today become more like Christ.
"Help us to recognize your face in others who need our assistance, in those who are suffering or forsaken, in all people, and help us to live together with you as brothers and sisters, so as to become one family, your family," he said.
In addition to the past breaches, security was also vigilant Friday due to the package bombings a day earlier at the Swiss and Chilean embassies, for which anarchists claimed responsibility. The two people who opened the envelopes were injured.
The bombings added to tensions in the capital following a violent, anti-government protest last week in the historic center and a fake bomb found Tuesday on a Rome subway.
The Vatican identified the pope’s 2008 and 2009 Christmas Eve assailant as Susanna Maiolo, a Swiss-Italian national with a history of psychiatric problems. Both years she wore a telltale red sweat shirt.
In 2008, the pope’s security detail blocked her from getting to him. But in 2009, she jumped the wooden security barrier along the basilica’s central aisle, grabbed Benedict’s vestments and pulled him to the ground when the pope’s bodyguards toppled her.
The pontiff wasn’t hurt and continued with the Mass. But Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, a retired Vatican diplomat who was near the pope, suffered a broken hip in the fall.
Maiolo was treated for some time at a clinic in Rome, and Benedict’s personal secretary, Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, visited her there. Three weeks later, Maiolo and her family met privately with the pope at the Vatican and the pontiff forgave her.
The Vatican reviewed security procedures after the knockdown. But officials have long warned there will always be risks to the pontiff since he is regularly surrounded by tens of thousands of people for his weekly audiences, Masses, papal greetings and other events.