Aging pope uses wheeled platform in St. Peter's

Pope Benedict XVI stands on a mobile platform as he leaves St. Peter's Basilica at the end of a mass at the Vatican, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2011.
Pope Benedict XVI stands on a mobile platform as he leaves St. Peter's Basilica at the end of a mass at the Vatican, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2011. Gregorio Borgia / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Pope Benedict XVI began using a wheeled platform Sunday to navigate the long aisle of St. Peter's Basilica, adopting the device employed by his ailing predecessor to reduce fatigue.

As the platform, pushed forward by aides, glided up the marble floor toward the main altar, Benedict gripped his pastoral staff with one hand and the device's support bar with the other.

The 84-year-old pontiff occasionally took his hand off the bar to wave to thousands of faithful flanking his route in the basilica, where he celebrated a Mass dedicated to encouraging missionary zeal.

Benedict walked steadily around the central altar and up and down its steps, but appeared less sprightly Sunday than he usually does.

But Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi insisted the platform wasn't being used for any "medical reason."

"The sole purpose is to ease the effort of the Holy Father, to reduce the fatigue," Lombardi told journalists.

No longer walking down the basilica aisle when Benedict arrives and leaves for ceremonies also makes the pontiff "more protected, because the pope stays, in his path, in the center" of the aisle, Lombardi said.

Previously, Benedict used to occasionally take a few steps to either side to greet admirers.

During the solemn entrance procession in the basilica for Christmas Eve Mass in 2009, a woman with psychiatric problems scrambled over the barrier and in her eagerness to greet Benedict, knocked him down. Benedict was unhurt, but an elderly cardinal in front of him toppled over and suffered a fracture.

Using the platform during basilica processions means the pontiff will no longer be able to reach over and shake hands or kiss babies, but since the platform is higher the faithful will have a better view of him.

Benedict's predecessor, Pope John Paul II, started using the gold-colored platform in his final years of the papacy, when Parkinson's disease made it increasingly difficult for him to walk steadily or without fatigue.

The Mass Sunday marked the Vatican's efforts to encourage what it calls a "new evangelization." The missionary zeal is aimed both at achieving conversions in parts of the world where the Catholic church is growing, including Asia and Africa, and at shoring up flagging faith in tradition Christian areas, including Western Europe.

A stream of revelations about church cover-ups of decades of sexual abuse by clergy of young people in the United States, Europe and Latin America has alienated many faithful from the church.

Benedict announced the Vatican will dedicate a special year of efforts to give "renewed impulse to the mission of all the church."

The "Year of Faith" will begin on Oct. 11, 2012, the 50th anniversary of the start of the Second Vatican Council. The council, called by Pope John XXIII, ushered in modernizing reforms, including efforts to improve relationships with other faiths and celebrating Mass in the local languages of Catholics worldwide instead of in Latin.

The year will provide the occasion to "reinforce our faith" in God and "to announce him with joy to mankind," Benedict said.