Pope Benedict XVI recalled the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II on Wednesday as he traveled to this Catholic shrine and prayed before a statue holding the bullet that gravely wounded the late pontiff.
Benedict said he was bringing the "problems and sufferings" of the world to Fatima, where three Portuguese shepherd children reported having visions of the Virgin Mary on May 13, 1917. The shrine draws millions of pilgrims a year and was a favorite of John Paul, who made his third and final visit in 2000 when he beatified two of the three shepherds.
Benedict traveled here to mark the 10th anniversary of the beatifications and was greeted by a crowd of tens of thousands of flag-waving faithful who flooded this pilgrimage town. He will celebrate a Mass here Thursday, to mark the anniversary of the original visions and the anniversary of the 1981 attempt on John Paul's life in St. Peter's Square.
In a prayer at the shrine, Benedict noted that John Paul firmly believed that the Virgin's "unseen hand" had "rescued him from death in the assassination attempt."
Benedict said John Paul had wanted to give the bullet that was extracted from his abdomen to the shrine as a measure of his gratitude; the bullet today forms part of the crown of the statue of the Virgin in a chapel here where Benedict prayed.
"It is a profound consolation to know that you are crowned not only with the silver and gold of our joys and hopes but also with the 'bullet' of our anxieties and sufferings," Benedict said.
Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca fired on John Paul in the Vatican's central square, gravely injuring him. While his motive remains unclear, he was convicted and served his sentence in Italy before being transferred to Turkey, where he was freed earlier this year after serving out the remainder of another sentence.
Agca had said he wanted to visit Fatima when Benedict was here; Portuguese government authorities asked him to postpone the visit, his lawyer said.
During John Paul's 2000 visit, the Vatican revealed the so-called third secret of Fatima, the third part of the message the Virgin is said to have told the children on May 13, 1917: a description of the assassination attempt on John Paul.
En route to Portugal on Tuesday, Benedict was asked if the suffering of the John Paul contained in Fatima's third secret could be extended to encompass the suffering of the church today concerning the clerical abuse scandal.
Benedict affirmed it could, arguing that the Fatima message doesn't respond to a particular situation or time but offers a "fundamental response" to the constant need for penance and prayer.
"In terms of what we today can discover in this message, attacks against the pope or the church don't come just from outside the church," he told reporters. "The suffering of the church also comes from within the church, because sin exists in the church. This, too, has always been known, but today we see it in a really terrifying way."
Portugal has largely been spared from the clerical abuse scandal, with no reports of cases. Spain, too, has largely been spared although church officials in Cordoba, Spain, said Wednesday a court is investigating allegations that members of a Catholic religious order, the Franciscan Brothers of the White Cross, sexually abused disabled residents of a facility run by the congregation.
Associated Press Writer Barry Hatton contributed to this report.
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