Reporting from Rome — Standing before more than 10,000 Roman Catholic priests, Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday strongly reaffirmed the Vatican's commitment to priestly vows of celibacy, cutting off speculation that he might reconsider the issue in light of the church's sexual abuse scandal.
At an outdoor vigil in St. Peter's Square that veered between moments of deep reverence and outbursts of enthusiasm more characteristic of a soccer game, the pope told the gathering of priests, believed to be the largest in history, that celibacy "is made possible by the grace of God … who asks us to transcend ourselves." Celibacy would be a "scandal," he said, only in "a world in which God is not there."
FOR THE RECORD:
Year of the Priest: An article in the June 11 Section A referred to priests from "each of the five populated continents" taking part in a vigil at the Vatican to mark the end of the Year of the Priest. Participating priests were from Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa and South America. The Vatican considers the Americas to be one continent, but The Times considers North and South America to be individual continents. The story also incorrectly stated that Msgr. Antonio Cacciapuoti, pastor of Christ the King Roman Catholic Church in Los Angeles, said in a taped message during the vigil that his parish was 100,000 strong and that Masses were celebrated in 72 languages. The priest was referring to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and to the number of people the archdiocese baptizes each year, and to the fact that Sunday Masses are celebrated in many languages in various churches. —
Some critics have suggested that the vow of celibacy may at least be partly responsible for the sex abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church, either because it is so difficult to uphold, or because it may discourage men with normal sex drives from becoming priests. In recent months, as the abuse scandal has widened in Europe, an Austrian bishop urged the Vatican to drop celibacy, which he said should be voluntary.
Benedict's remarks came in response to a question posed by a Slovakian priest, and he made it clear that he supported continuing the practice of celibacy under his pontificate. He compared it to heterosexual marriage, which he called "the foundation of the Christian culture."
The pope did not directly address the subject of sexual abuse by priests during the ceremony, although it was raised obliquely by others, both times to loud reactions from the assembled priests. In a salute to Benedict, Cardinal Claudio Hummes, prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, drew loud applause when he said, "For those of us who are lost, we know your holiness has always forgiven and always forgives the pain that some have caused you."
Sister Maria Gloria Riva, a nun who addressed the gathering, prompted a similar response when she said, "We are the mothers of the priests, who sustain the priests at a time when they have been hit by scandal."
The vigil came during ceremonies marking the end of the Year of the Priest, which Benedict declared last year. He was scheduled to formally conclude the year with a Mass on Friday morning.
The crowd at St. Peter's consisted of 10,000 to 15,000 priests, along with several thousand others, including nuns and laypersons. Vatican spokesman Father Ciro Benedettini said he was fairly certain there had never been so many Catholic priests in one place at one time.
Benedict arrived in the late evening, making circles through the crowd in his popemobile as the priests cheered, chanted "Viva il papa!" and "Benedetto!" and waved an array of national flags reflecting their countries of origin, including Italy, Mexico, Brazil, Poland, Germany and El Salvador.
"We're preparing for the World Cup," joked Father Mauricio Torres of Santiago, Chile, as he held a Chilean flag aloft.
The main event of the vigil involved Benedict answering questions from five priests, representing each of the five populated continents. They covered issues such as the small numbers of young people joining the priesthood, the difficulty in balancing the duties of a parish priest, the potential clash of theology and doctrine, and the question of celibacy.
Several priests interviewed afterward said they were pleased with what they heard from Benedict, and that the vigil gave them a sense of renewal during a difficult period for the priesthood.
"The pope was very wise in his comments, very generous to us priests," said Father David Kennedy, whose church is just outside the gates of Ft. Campbell, Ky., home of the 101st Airborne. He said the comments on celibacy were similar to what he was taught in a Benedictine monastery. "I agree with everything," he said.
His friend and traveling companion, Father Ken Mikolcik of Mayfield, Ky., agreed, adding, "We've been reminded constantly here that the church is in need of reform and renewal."
Earlier in the evening, the crowd watched taped telecasts of priests in Buenos Aires and at Christ the King Roman Catholic Church in Hollywood. Msgr. Antonio Cacciapuoti of Christ the King described the size and diversity of the Catholic archdiocese of Los Angeles, and spoke about John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests to whom Benedict dedicated the Year of the Priest.
In Los Angeles, an audience primarily of school students gathered at the church to watch a live feed of Cacciapuoti, who spoke on the taped message about his 100,000-strong parish, the Masses that are celebrated in 72 languages, and his efforts to bring new congregants to Christ "one person at a time."
Times staff writer Ann Simmons in Los Angeles contributed to this report.