A woman jumped the barriers in St Peter’s Basilica and knocked down Pope Benedict XVI at the start of Christmas Eve Mass.
The 82-year-old pontiff got up unhurt and proceeded as planned with last night’s service.Witness video showed a woman dressed in a red-hooded sweatshirt vaulting over the wooden barriers that cordoned off the basilica’s main aisle and rushing toward the Pope before being swarmed bybodyguards.
The video showed the woman grabbing the Pope’s vestments as she was kocked down by guards, with Benedict then falling on top of her.
The commotion occurred as the Pope’s procession was making its way towards the main altar and shocked gasps rang out among the thousands who packed the basilica.
The procession came to a halt, the music stopped and security rushed to the troublespot.
Vatican spokesman the Rev Ciro Benedettini said the woman appeared to be mentally unstable and had been taken into custody by Vatican police.
He said she also knocked down Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, who was taken to hospital for a check-up.
It was the second year in a row that there has been a security breach at the Christmas Eve service and this was the most serious incident involving the public in Benedict’s five-year papacy.
At the end of last year’s Mass, a woman who had jumped the barriers got close to the Pope but was quickly blocked on the ground by security.
That woman too wore a red-hooded sweatshirt, but Benedettini said it was not immediately known whether the same person was behind yesterday’s incident.
MaryBeth Burns from Paris, Texas, was about four people away from the woman who jumped the barriers and was filming the Pope’s procession as the commotion started.
“All of a sudden this person sort of flew over the barricade and the Holy Father went down and all the security people were on top of it, a whole pile there, getting her off and him back up,” said Ms Burns, who was visiting Italy with her family on a religious pilgrimage for Christmas.
“I’m really mad because I had a perfect shot lined up,” she added. “I’m still shaking.”
Benedict lost his mitre and 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.
After getting up, Benedict, flanked by tense bodyguards, resumed his walk to the basilica’s main altar to start the Mass. The Pope, who broke his right wristin a fall this summer, appeared unharmed but somewhat shaken and leaned heavily on aides and an armrest as he sat down in his chair.
Few people who were watching the Mass on giant screens set up in a rain-soaked St Peter’s Square even knew that the Pope had fallen, with many saying that either they were not looking or had arrived too late.
Benedict made no reference to the disturbance after 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.
The incident was the first time a potential attacker came into direct contact with Benedict, and underscored concerns by security analysts who have frequently warned the Pope is too exposed in his public appearances.
In a similar incident, Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi was attacked as he was greeting the crowd at a political rally earlier this month.
A man with a history of psychological problems hurled a souvenir statuette at the politician, fracturing his nose and breaking two of his teeth.
Benedict celebrated this year’s Christmas Eve Mass two hours earlier than the usual midnight starting time in a move by the Vatican to ease the pontiff’s busy holiday schedule.
Benedict has been remarkably healthy during his pontificate, keeping to a busy schedule and travelling around the world.
But in July, he broke his wrist during a late-night fall whilin an Alpine chalet and had to have minor surgery and wear a cast for a month – an episode that highlights the risk he ran in Thursday’s tumble.
In his homily, the Pope urged the world to “wake up” from selfishness and petty affairs, and find time for God and spiritual matters
“To wake up means to leave that private world of one’s own and to enter the common reality,” Benedict said in Italian.
“Conflict and lack of reconciliation in the world stem from the fact that we are locked into our own interests and opinions, into our own little private world.
”Benedict’s next scheduled appearance is at noon today, when he is to deliver his traditional “Urbi et Orbi” (To the city and the world) speech from the basilica’s balcony