Pope greets quake children

POPE John Paul II yesterday

Among those attending were schoolchildren from the tiny town in southern Italy where an earthquake collapsed a school in October, killing 27 students. At the audience’s end, scores of them gathered around the Pope as he sat in a chair.

Seated on the stage of the Vatican’s modern audience hall, between two decorated Christmas trees, the Pope was feted by bands and choirs singing carols from their native countries.

Christmas greetings were extended to the Pope by priests representing the major language groups of the several thousand people present, while shouts from the crowd of “Buon Natale, Papa” (Merry Christmas, Pope) were heard throughout the hour-long audience.

Speaking to his fellow Poles in a weak but upbeat voice, the frail and aging pontiff recalled their tradition of breaking “oplatek”, a wafer on Christmas Eve, and extended his Christmas blessing to Poles throughout the world.

“May Christmas be filled with grace for all of you, may it bring to all the blessing of peace, prosperity and happiness.”

Pope John Paul is said to get particularly homesick at Christmas time and has brought Polish tradition to the Vatican, decorating the austere halls of the apostolic palace with cheerful Christmas trees, and setting up a tree in his papal apartments brought especially from Poland’s Tatra mountains.

It is also thanks to John Paul that St Peter’s Square has been decorated for the last 20 years with a life-size nativity scene and a fir tree offered each year by a different European country. This year’s 71ft tall tree comes from Croatia.

Pope John Paul is scheduled to celebrate midnight Mass in St Peter’s Basilica on Christmas Eve.

On Christmas Day he will impart his blessing to a crowd in St Peter’s Square. The Pope held his annual audience with the Nuncio to Ireland, Archbishop Giuseppi Lazzarotto on Monday. The audience took place just three days after the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law as Archbishop of Boston.

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