VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI consoled a 7-year-old Japanese girl, reassured a mother about her ailing son's soul and advised a Muslim woman that dialogue was the way to peace in Ivory Coast.
The pontiff's words came during an unusual Good Friday question and answer session on Italian state TV — part of a new Vatican push to engage with the world online and through Facebook, Twitter and other social media.
It was hardly a casual or spontaneous chat: Seven questions were selected from thousands that poured in via RAI television's website, and Benedict recorded his answers last week.
He seemed a bit stiff, sitting all alone in a big white chair behind his desk inside the Apostolic Palace as an unseen interviewer read out the letters to him.
But the teacher and pastor in the 84-year-old Benedict came through as he fielded the questions, which all dealt with suffering and Jesus' death, which Christians recall on Good Friday, and his resurrection, celebrated on Easter Sunday.
The first question came from young Elena, who asked the pope why she felt so afraid after Japan's earthquake shook her house and killed so many children.
"Why do children have to be so sad?" the girl asked. "I'm asking the pope, who speaks with God, to explain it to me."
Speaking simply as if Elena were right there, Benedict responded that he too wondered why so many innocent people suffer, but that she should take heart in knowing that Jesus had suffered too.
"You can be sure that in the world, in the universe, there are many people who are with you, thinking of you, doing what they can for you to help you," Benedict said.
"Be assured, we are with you, with all the Japanese children who are suffering."
He then turned to a question from an Italian mother, Maria Teresa, who worried about her son, Francesco, who has been in a vegetative state since Easter 2009. She asked if Francesco's soul still remained.
"He feels the presence of love," Benedict told her, praising her for keeping her vigil as a "true act of love."
"I encourage you, therefore, to carry on, to know that you are giving a great service to humanity with this sign of faith, with this sign of respect for life, with this love for a wounded body and a suffering soul," he said.
Monsignor Paul Tighe, the No. 2 in the Vatican's social communications office, said the decision to have the pope engage in the televised event stemmed from the realization that Benedict must engage more with the public to ensure his message is received.
"This is a very simple beginning of what you could call interactivity," Tighe said in a recent interview. "It's launching something new for us."
In the past, Benedict has taken preselected questions from carefully chosen Catholics, responding live in St. Peter's Square, such as when he meets annually with university students. He also regularly answers questions submitted beforehand by journalists when flying to foreign countries and has fielded questions from groups of priests.
But the Good Friday session was the first time he had taken questions from the general public — and not necessarily even the Catholic public.
"The advantage of this is it opens up the possibility to people who couldn't hope or aspire to having a direct meeting with the pope, but through the Internet can put their questions there," Tighe said.
That was certainly the case for Bintu, a Muslim woman who greeted the pope in Arabic and asked him in French for his advice on bringing peace to Ivory Coast, which has been wracked by political violence.
"How many innocents have lost their lives!" she said. "How many mothers and how many children traumatized!"
Benedict told her he was grieved that he could do so little, saying he had tasked the head of the Vatican's justice and peace office, Cardinal Peter Kodwo Turkson, to try to mediate between the country's opposing factions.
"The only path is to renounce violence, to begin anew with dialogue, with the attempt to find peace together, with a new concern for one another, a new willingness to be open to one another," the pontiff said.
The broadcast spliced the pope's responses with commentary from Italian religious affairs experts, as well as video footage of the people asking their questions.
It was a very feminine-focused event, with three of the questions coming from women and a fourth about Mary.
Benedict continued that theme with the more traditional Good Friday event — the nighttime Way of the Cross procession at Rome's Colosseum, in which the faithful re-enact the final hours of Christ's life. The meditations for each station of the cross were composed by an Italian nun, Sister Maria Rita Piccione, and the artwork accompanying them were designed by another nun.
Piccione said she didn't know why she had been selected. The only communication she ever had with the pope, she said, was when she sent him a letter last year offering her support for the "persecution" he and the church were going through in the midst of the clerical abuse scandal.
While the Q&A session departed from the Vatican's Good Friday routine, elsewhere in the world ancient Christian practices marked the solemn day.
In Jerusalem, Christian pilgrims filled the cobblestone alleyways of the walled Old City to commemorate Jesus' crucifixion there two millennia ago. Thousands of international visitors and local Christians retraced Christ's last steps down the Via Dolorosa, Latin for the "Way of Suffering." The route ends at the ancient Church of the Holy Sepulcher, revered as the site of Jesus' crucifixion, burial and his resurrection on Easter Sunday.
"All my life I've been waiting for this wish — I've been wishing for one day to come here in Jerusalem to worship. I wanted to step where my lord stepped," said Roshan Futsom, a pilgrim from Toronto.
Associated Press writer Matti Friedman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
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