Thousands rally to pope’s side

Crowds pack St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on Sunday for Pope Benedict XVI’s traditional noontime blessing.Gregorio Borgia / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Tens of thousands of people packed Pope Benedict XVI's traditional noontime blessing Sunday in a show of support after the Vatican canceled his visit to a university because of some protests by students and faculty.

The pope's vicar for Rome, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, had called for a high turnout for Benedict's weekly blessing, and St. Peter's Square overflowed under a brilliant sun for the pontiff's brief appearance at his studio window.

The Vatican estimated the crowd at 200,000, far larger than on a typical Sunday. Thousands more packed the piazza in front of Milan's cathedral to watch the blessing on giant TV screens.

The Vatican canceled the pope's planned speech last Thursday at Rome's La Sapienza university after 63 professors and some students said they opposed the religious leader speaking at a secular campus. The Vatican said it didn't want to create a pretext for further unpleasantness by going ahead with the visit.

Benedict referred to the issue on Sunday, saying he had put off the visit "against my will" but that the climate surrounding his appearance had made his presence at the school "inopportune."

He noted that he had a long history in academia — he taught theology in Germany for many years — and that he was greatly attached to the "love for the search for truth, for confrontation, for frank and respectful dialogue for reciprocal positions" found in university life.

"As a professor — shall we say, emeritus — who has met with so many students in my life, I encourage all of you, dear university students and professors, to always be respectful of other people's opinions and to search for truth and goodness with a free and responsible spirit."

In recent years, however, there has been a debate in the United States about whether Catholic universities should invite speakers, such as politicians, whose positions differ with Catholic Church teaching.

The pope was interrupted several times by applause from the crowd, which included students carrying banners that read "University Students," "Sapienza" and "At University for Truth" as well as Italian politicians.

Valerio Duranti, an economy student at La Sapienza, said he came to the Vatican on Sunday to show his support.

"If somebody has different ideas from yours, you must listen to them and then comment. It is not right to prevent him from talking at all," he said.

Students were also out in force because Sunday marked the Diocese of Rome's celebration of the Day for Catholic schools.

The pontiff thanked them all for turning out in such large numbers.