Pope, turning 80, thanks Church for surrounding him with affection

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- At a Mass marking his 80th birthday, Pope Benedict XVI thanked the church for surrounding him with affection "like a true family" and for supporting him with prayers.

"Over and over, I recognize with joy how great is the number of people who sustain me with their prayers, who with their faith and love help me carry out my ministry, and who are indulgent with my weakness," he said April 15.

The Mass opened two days of celebrations commemorating the pope's April 16 birthday and the second anniversary of his election April 19. The festivities featured a Vatican concert, dozens of written testimonials and a giant birthday cake in the shape of the Vatican.

Some 50,000 people, including German pilgrims wearing traditional dress, jammed into St. Peter's Square for the liturgy. The altar area was surrounded by thousands of flowers -- yellow and white, the colors of the Vatican.

Cardinals and bishops processed with the pontiff through the square to a canopied altar area on the steps of the basilica. Seated near the front were German civil authorities from the pope's native Bavaria and ecumenical representatives from Orthodox churches.

Greeting the pope in the name of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Sodano said his 80th birthday marked a moment of "spiritual joy" for the entire church.

He thanked the pope for guiding the church with love during the first two years of his pontificate.

In his sermon, the pope appeared a little reticent about being the focus of the Mass, saying the liturgy should not be the place "to speak about oneself." But he added that one's personal life can also offer lessons about God's mercy.

The pope said he always felt he was given a special gift by being born on Holy Saturday, at "the beginning of Easter." In a sense, he said, he was born into his personal family and the larger family of the church on the same day.

He said his family helped lead him to God, and he expressed his gratitude to his own father, mother, sister and brother. The only surviving member of his immediate family, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, sat near the papal altar.

The pope described his priestly ordination in 1951 as a turning point in his life. As he approached the ordination Mass, he said, "the awareness of the poverty of my existence in the face of this new task weighed upon me."

But during the ordination, he said, he came to realize that he would not be alone when he heard the invocation of the saints and the words of Christ in the Gospel: "I no longer call you slaves ... I will call you friends.

"I was able to have a profound experience: The Lord was not only the Lord, but also a friend. He placed his hand in mine and will not leave me," he said.

As his responsibilities have grown in life, the friendship of Christ has given him the strength to face them, he said. There is a lesson here for everyone, he added.

"The mercy of God accompanies us day by day. We only need to have a vigilant heart in order to perceive it," he said.

"We're too inclined to notice only the daily toil that's been imposed on us, as sons of Adam. But if we open our hearts, we can see continually how good God is with us," he said.

At the end of the Mass, the pope said he was moved by the vast crowd that had gathered in the square.

"From the depth of my heart, I renew my most sincere thanks and extend it to the entire church, which, like a true family, especially in these days, surrounds me with affection," he said.

The Vatican set up a temporary e-mail address where people can send birthday greetings to the pope: http://isidoro.vatican.va/auguri/auguri.php?lingua=en.

Meanwhile, gifts poured into the Vatican. The pope's private secretary, Msgr. Georg Ganswein, said they included letters, books, flowers, compact discs and even a giant teddy bear, which the pope donated to the Bambino Gesu children's hospital in Rome.

Msgr. Ganswein said the pope had said he did not want to accept personal gifts from the faithful. Those who want to give something can make an offering that the pope will use for special church or humanitarian causes, the papal secretary said.

One gift the pope did accept was a cope, or liturgical cloak, given him by his brother. The pope also received 80 bottles of beer from a brewery near Freising, Germany.

The pope joined cardinals for a private birthday lunch at the Vatican April 16.

The Vatican newspaper published eight pages of articles commenting on the pope and his ministry, under the main headline: "Hearts Overflowing With Joy."

"Joy is the key word for the teaching ministry of this universal pastor," an editorial said.


04/16/2007 9:27 AM ET

Copyright (c) 2007 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops


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