Thousands of young Catholics have greeted the Pope in Milan in a welcome distraction from Vatican infighting for the aged pontiff.
The pope, who left the scandal-hit Vatican for the Church-sponsored World Meeting of Families, appeared cheered by the raucous welcome that the 80 000 young believers gave him.
And during a colourful spectacle at the city’s famous San Siro football stadium, one young Italian chosen to address the pope told him he was “the biggest champion”.
Milan’s Archbishop Angelo Scola said he hoped the youths would give the pope some comfort after weeks of turmoil at the Vatican over the leaking of papal documents to the press.
Some commentators have suggested the leaks were part of a plot to undermine the Church hierarchy.
The crowds of adolescents and children were divided into groups in the colours of the rainbow and some presented a choreographed show on the pitch. Several then had the chance to address a few words to the pope.
“We are so very happy that you wanted to take the time to meet us,” said one young Italian, Giovanni Castiglioni.
“It’s so great to be able to welcome you in the stadium where our champions play. Today, you are the biggest champion.”
Scola, accompanying the pope, said he hoped the young pilgrims’ “contagious enthusiasm” would bring the pope “smiles, rest and joy”.
The archbishop has long been tipped as a possible successor to Benedict. But the “Vatileaks” scandal, with its echoes of an internal power struggle inside the Church, suggests to some that all bets are now off.
The scandal, in which hundreds of secret papal documents were leaked to the media, led last week to the arrest of the pope’s personal butler. The drama appears to have taken its toll on the 85-year-old pontiff.
On the second day of his trip to address pilgrims from 154 countries, the pope also spoke to hundreds of clergy members in Milan Cathedral.
Despite increasing calls from some parts of the Church for clergy to be allowed to marry, he made it clear that the question of priest celibacy was not up for debate.
“The shining light of pastoral charity and a unified heart is sacerdotal celibacy and enshrined virginity,” Benedict said.
“Without a doubt, Jesus’ love is for all Christians but takes on particular significance for the celibate priest and for those who take up the vocation of a life of devotion,” he added.
Some senior Catholic clergymen have called for a new discussion on the issue of priest celibacy in the wake of a string of child abuse scandals that has rocked the Church.
Later Saturday, the pontiff was due to preside over a celebration with 300 000 faithful and the trip will wind up on Sunday with an open-air mass at Bresso airport near Italy’s economic capital.
While Benedict was blessing new-born babies and receiving yellow daisies from children as he drove around the city in his pope-mobile, the Vatican was busy denying media reports suggesting its administration was in turmoil.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told journalists Saturday that it was not true that cardinals tasked with deciding the fate of the Vatican bank’s president were split due to a rift in the Holy See’s heart.
The commission of cardinals must decide whether or not to uphold the bank board’s decision last month to oust Ettore Gotti Tedeschi for having allegedly failed to clean up the institution’s image amid accusations of corruption.
Lombardi did not comment on other reports suggesting the cardinals were being forced to choose sides in the “Vatileaks” scandal, which some argue is aimed at ousting the Vatican number two, Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone.
It was Bertone who reportedly pushed the bank’s board to fire their president as internal divisions over financial transparency came to a head.
Gotti Tedeschi’s mission was to get the Vatican on to the “white list” of financially virtuous countries, but tensions grew after Bertone resisted reform and pushed for a new transparency law to be watered down.
Tedeschi (67) came under suspicion himself in 2010 when he was investigated as part of an inquiry by magistrates into money-laundering.
More recently he too was suspected of having leaked secret papal documents to the press.—AFP.