Former pope Benedict XVI travelled from the Vatican to Germany on Thursday to visit his sick brother, officials said, in his first trip abroad since his shock resignation in 2013.
The unexpected trip to the Bavarian city of Regensburg was described as “a private visit” made necessary by the deteriorating health of Benedict’s 96-year-old brother Georg Ratzinger, said Clemens Neck, a spokesman for the Regensburg bishopric.
“It might be the last time the brothers see each other in this world,” Neck told AFP.
The Vatican confirmed the trip and said the only other time 93-year-old Benedict had left the Vatican since his resignation was a visit to the Castel Gandolfo papal palace outside Rome.
It is believed to be his first time back in Germany since 2011.
Benedict, seen as a traditionalist in the Catholic Church, stunned the world when he became the first pope in 600 years to resign, citing health reasons.
Pope Francis stepped up his battle against corruption in the Vatican Monday with a new law aimed at boosting transparency in tenders and cutting costs as a post-coronavirus recession hits.
Convicted mobsters and those guilty of tax fraud are among a list of undesirables now unable to pocket contracts.
The Argentine pontiff was elected in 2013 to put the Vatican’s finances in order, but has met resistance from certain ministries reluctant to relinquish control over funds or shine a light on internal workings.
The law, published Monday, is the result of four years of work and brings the Vatican into line with international standards.
It is “a not insignificant turn of events,” Vatican expert Iacopo Scaramuzzi said on Twitter.
“It puts an end to the firmly established Vatican habit… of entrusting external contracts to relatives and friends of friends,” he added.
The new standards of “transparency, control and competition in the procedures for awarding public contracts” will centralise expenditures, currently very fragmented, under two administrative bodies.
The changes will “significantly reduce the danger of corruption,” Francis said in his written introduction to the law.
While the days of suspected mafia involvement in the Vatican’s finances are long gone, the seat of the Catholic Church has found it difficult to shake off scandals completely.
A recent investigation uncovered possible corruption linked to Vatican real estate investments in London.
As well as excluding people convicted of ties to organised crime groups from bids, the law says the Vatican’s selection for tenders must comply with ethical principles and avoid conflicts of interest.
Giuseppe Pignatone, a leading Italian anti-mafia expert appointed by the Pope in October to head up the Vatican’s court, said the law aimed to achieve “significant savings” through competitive bidding.
“The theme of cutting expenses is very topical and important at this time — unfortunately destined to continue — of serious economic difficulties for the whole world, but also for the Holy See and the Vatican City State,” he said.
The Vatican said Sunday that its traditional Easter week celebrations would be held this year without worshippers due to the coronavirus.
“Because of the current global public health emergency, all the liturgical celebrations of Holy Week will take place without the physical presence of the faithful,” the Prefecture of the Pontifical Household said in a statement.
The office is in charge of coordinating most of Pope Francis’s public schedule and his audiences with heads of state and other dignitaries.
The Vatican also said: “Until April 12, the general audiences and the Angelus presided over by the Holy Father will be available only in live streaming on the official Vatican News website.”
According to the latest tally late Saturday, there have been 1,441 deaths in Italy due to COVID-19, and more than 21,000 Italians have tested positive.
Italy is the hardest-hit European country so far in the pandemic.
The Vatican clinic is used by priests, residents and employees — including those now retired — as well as their relatives.
Bruni said the Vatican was getting in touch with all those who had passed through the clinic, as per protocol.
Most of the Vatican’s employees live in the Lazio region, where 44 people have tested positive for the virus.
Pope Francis is suffered from a bad cold but reportedly tested negative for COVID-19.
The 83-year old has a personal doctor and does not visit the medical centre — except for rare trips to greet staff.
– ‘Avoid dissemination’ – The Vatican said on Thursday it was considering changes to Pope Francis’s schedule “to avoid the dissemination” of the new coronavirus.
It did not say whether the Argentinian pontiff would be temporarily kept away from crowds or whether he would stop shaking hands with visitors.
Francis has not been seen in public since announcing during his traditional Sunday prayer before crowds in Saint Peter’s Square that he was skipping an annual spiritual refuge south of Rome because of a cold.
The pontiff has cut down his schedule and has spent most of his time at home, the Saint Martha’s guest house in the Vatican.
“The cold with which the Holy Father was diagnosed is running its due course,” Bruni told journalists Thursday.
Francis lost part of a lung as a young man and suffers from sciatica — a nerve condition that causes pain in his hip.
But he rarely cancels appointments and normally takes extra time to mingle with crowds.
The Vatican is expected to supply staff working in close contact with tourists with masks and gloves.
Like many of the monuments and famous squares in Rome, Saint Peter’s Square and the Museums are largely deserted.
In Rome, priests are discouraging people to exchange the sign of peace and holy water fonts are being emptied.
Pope Francis cancelled a scheduled appearance at mass in Rome on Thursday because of “a mild ailment”, the Vatican said, the day after he appeared to be suffering a cold.
“Due to a mild ailment, he preferred to stay in the vicinity of Saint Martha’s,” the guest house at the Vatican where the 83-year old pontiff lives, chief press officer Matteo Bruni said in a statement.
The mass in question was at the Basilica of St. John Lateran, one of Rome’s biggest and largest churches.
Bruni said the Argentine’s schedule remained otherwise unchanged.
The announcement came as Italy struggles to control the largest outbreak of the coronavirus in Europe with some 400 cases.
The Vatican made no reference to the disease in its announcement.
Francis has not curtailed any of his activities, which often include mingling with crowds and shaking hands.
The pontiff, who only has one lung and suffers problems with one hip, very rarely cancels an appointment in his busy schedule.
Vatican News said the pope had earlier Thursday celebrated the daily mass at Saint Martha’s House, before meeting members of a global Catholic climate movement as planned.
Pope Francis apologised Wednesday for his widely-viewed slap of a woman who had grabbed his hand as he greeted Catholic faithful on New Year’s Eve.
The image of Francis slapping his way free from the clutches of the admirer was an instant hit on social media.
A personal apology followed.
“We lose patience many times,” Francis confessed.
“It happens to me too. I apologise for the bad example given yesterday,” the head of the Catholic church said before celebrating Mass at the Vatican.
Twitter enthusiasts commented with abandon on the pontiff’s prompt riposte to the woman.
Francis had greeted children before the Nativity scene on Saint Peter’s square and was turning away when the woman who had crossed herself then cried out something, pulled on his hand and almost caused him to fall.
The 83-year-old pope grimaced before managing to break free by slapping her hand twice.
He continued his tour, walking with some difficulty while maintaining a slightly greater distance from visitors, and gradually relaxed again as he came into contact with other children.
Twitter comments were mostly supportive of the pontiff’s instinctive reaction.
“HE IS HUMAN.. Been (sic) a Pope doesn’t make you immune to Pain or avoid Reaction to pain,” one typical comment read.
In his first Mass of the New Year, the pontiff later denounced “all violence against women” as “a profanation of God, born of a woman.”
Francis also said women were “the source of life” but deplored that they were constantly “offended, beaten, abused and forced into prostitution” and forced to “supress the life they carry within” them.
He emphasised that the “rebirth of humanity began with a woman,” and bemoaned that women’s bodies were “sacrificed on the profane altars of advertising, profit, pornography.”
“HE IS HUMAN.. Been (sic) a Pope doesn’t make you immune to Pain or avoid Reaction to pain,” one typical comment read.
In his first Mass of the New Year, the pontiff nonetheless denounced Wednesday “all violence against women” as “a profanation of God, born of a woman,” a position underscored by several Twitter enthusiasts.
Another concluded that as 2020 dawned, “the pope is trending.”
I ‘lost patience’ with exuberant admirer
Pope Francis confessed Wednesday he had “lost patience” with an exuberant admirer who had grabbed his hand on Saint Peter’s Square, prompting a swift pair of slaps.
“We lose patience many times. It happens to me too. I apologise for the bad example given yesterday,” the head of the Catholic church said before celebrating Mass at the Vatican.
Pope Francis led an impassioned mass for tens of thousands of emotional worshippers at a packed Bangkok stadium Thursday, urging respect for prostitutes and trafficking victims in a part of the world where sex work is rampant.
The remarks came at the end of a whirlwind day of meetings for Pope Francis, who is on his first trip to Buddhist-majority Thailand where he is carrying a message of religious harmony and peace.
He heads to Japan next, visiting the twin atomic bombs sites of Nagasaki and Hiroshima where he will seek a ban on “immoral” nuclear weapons.
The 82-year-old arrived at the stadium in a golden robe woven for him from Thai silk, greeting crowds of flag-waving faithful, some wiping tears from their faces at the sight of the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics.
An estimated 60,000 worshippers gathered for the mass, some pouring into a nearby stadium to watch the hymn-filled service on large screens.
Known for his down-to-earth style, the Pope did not shy away from difficult topics.
He focused on the importance of helping vulnerable children and women “who are victims of prostitution and human trafficking, humiliated in their essential human dignity”.
He also referred to drug addicts, migrants and “exploited sinners and bypassed beggars”.
“All of them are part of our family. They are our mothers, our brothers and sisters. Let us not deprive our communities of seeing their faces, their wounds, their smiles and their lives,” said the Pope, after leading prayers.
The remarks were delivered in a region beloved by tourists but infamous for a thriving sex trade and unchecked human trafficking.
Prostitution is illegal in Thailand, home to at least 300,000 sex workers — some four percent of whom are believed to be trafficked, according to official estimates.
Many women are drawn to the work because they can earn up to 10 times more than the minimum wage, and critics say some corrupt Thai authorities turn a blind eye to the thriving trade.
Earlier, the Pope praised Thailand’s efforts to stamp out the “scourge” of exploitation and enslavement of women and children, urging a “dignified” future for vulnerable youth.
The Catholic Church has been shaken by child sex abuse scandals itself in recent years, with many high-profile cases brought against clergy.
– ‘Gift from God’ – Thailand has not had a visit from a pontiff since John Paul II in 1984, and the small but spirited Catholic community was thrilled ahead of the mass.
Just over 0.5 percent of the population is Catholic but the community has been here for centuries.
For Pimrapat Panyawattanatikul, the service was her second shot at seeing a pope after John Paul II touched her head some 35 years ago.
Now she’s hoping her mother will get a similar honour, with the pair sitting right on the track Francis was set to drive past in his Popemobile.
“It’s a miracle we got these seats. It’s my mom’s dream to see the pope and to go to Italy. This is a gift from God,” Pimrapat told AFP, her mother next to her clutching a rosary.
The Pope’s colourful mass capped a packed schedule on the first full day of Thailand where he was welcomed Wednesday by cheering worshippers in Bangkok eager for a glimpse of his motorcade.
On Thursday Francis followed in the footsteps of John Paul II, paying a visit to the supreme Buddhist patriarch Somdej Phra Maha Muneewong at one of Bangkok’s famed gilded temples.
The pair sat before a brilliant gold Buddha statue inside the ornate temple, built 150 years ago by the former Thai King — the supreme patriarch barefoot and draped in orange robes as they spoke.
The Pope reciprocated the gesture, removing his shoes for part of the tete-a-tete.
In an earlier speech, the Pope said the meeting was “a sign of the importance and urgency of promoting friendship and inter-religious dialogue”.
– Nuclear ban – This visit coincides with the 350th anniversary of the founding of the “Mission de Siam”, marking the first papal mission from Europe in the 17th century.
Though Christianity’s first visitors were initially met with scepticism, today Thailand’s nearly 400,000 Catholics face little discrimination.
The Pope also paid a visit to Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha and King Maha Vajiralongkorn, gifting the top royal a colourful mosaic of a papal blessing in Vatican City’s Saint Peter’s Square.
On Friday the pontiff will host another mass, this one for young people, and meet with religious leaders in the city.
He jets to Japan Saturday, where he will visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both devastated when the US dropped atomic bombs at the end of World War II in 1945.
The pope, who years ago had hoped to be a missionary in Japan, has made strong calls for a ban on nuclear weapons.
Five Vatican employees, including the number two at its anti-money laundering authority, have been suspended following police raids linked to a financial wrongdoing probe, Italian media said Wednesday.
There was no immediate comment from Vatican authorities to the report which came the day after prosecutors seized documents and electronic devices from he offices of two key Vatican departments, the Secretariat of State and the FIA financial authority.
The L’Espresso magazine published a police circular dated Wednesday showing photographs and the positions of the five “suspended as a precaution”.
The circular said Vatican guards should no longer grant access to the five, except for healthcare purposes.
One of those suspended, secretariat head of information and documentation Mgr Mauro Carlino, will continue to be granted residence in the same hotel complex which is home to Pope Francis.
Also named was FIA director Tommaso Di Ruzza. The FIA is an independent anti-money laundering authority designed to lend transparency to operations by the Institute for the Works of Religion (IOR) — which acts as the Vatican Bank.
The three others suspended hold administrative posts in the secretariat.
The Vatican had said Tuesday’s raids, authorised by prosecutor Gian Piero Milano and his deputy Alessandro Diddi, were “linked to the complaints presented at the beginning of last summer by the Institute for Works of Religion and the Office of the General Auditor, regarding financial transactions carried out over time.”
The Secretariat of State, the Catholic Church’s governing body, works closely with Pope Francis.
L’Espresso reported that the investigation was looking into “real estate operations abroad,” notably in London with the alleged participation of British companies.
The magazine said investigators were analysing transactions on bank accounts which receive sums of money donated to the Catholic Church.
Pope Francis will travel to Thailand in November, the Vatican said Friday, in a visit to Asia that will sweep in Japan and the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which were both decimated by atomic bombs in 1945.
It has been nearly four decades since a pontiff visited Thailand and Japan, both Buddhist-majority countries.
The late Pope John Paul II went to the largely Shinto Buddhist Japan in 1981, and he travelled to Thailand three years later where he met with the late King Rama IX and the Queen Mother.
The Vatican announced Friday the current pontiff will travel to Thailand from November 20-23, and then Japan to November 26.
In Bangkok, Pope Francis will “preside at religious ceremonies and pastoral visits to Catholic communities”, said a press statement from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Thailand.
Sister Ana Rosa Sivori, the Pope’s second cousin who runs a Catholic girls’ school in Thailand, told AFP she would be with Pope Francis during his Bangkok visit.
“This visit shows his desire to improve the dialogue to other religions to bring a message of peace,” she told AFP.
The four-day papal visit will coincide with the 350th anniversary of the founding of the “Mission de Siam”, which was first established by Pope Clement IX in 1669.
Today, the Christian community make up an estimated 1 per cent in Thailand, with the majority residing in the north and many within ethnic minority groups like the Jarai and the Akha.
The Vatican also provided more details of a visit to Japan, which was announced in January. The Pope had wanted to work in the country as a missionary in his youth but the plan was abandoned following a lung operation.
The Shinto Buddhist country is home to some 450,000 Catholics and 510,000 Protestants.
“During the latter visit, the Holy Father will visit Tokyo, Nagasaki, and Hiroshima,” said the statement, adding that an official schedule will be provided on a later date.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki were decimated after the US dropped atomic bombs at the end of Second World War in 1945.
More than 140,000 people were killed in Hiroshima, while the port city of Nagasaki suffered a death toll of 74,000 after the Americans dropped the atomic bombs.
The Pope has referenced the bombings in the past.
In January last year, he printed cards with a 1945 photo of victims of the Nagasaki bombing, inscribing the words “the fruit of war” in Italian on the card above his signature.
The photo, captured by American photographer Joe O’Donnell, showed a young boy standing ramrod straight carrying his dead younger brother on his back while waiting for his turn at a cremation site.
Since Pope Francis’ election five years ago, he has made two trips to Asia, visiting the Philippines and Sri Lanka in 2014, followed by Myanmar and Bangladesh last year.
Pope Francis on Saturday made an impassioned plea to Madagascans to protect the Indian Ocean’s unique environment from “excessive deforestation”, on the second leg of his African tour.
Weeks after a spike of fires in the Amazon, the Argentine pontiff told his hosts they should “create jobs and money-making activities which respect the environment and help people escape poverty”.
Madagascar — famed for its immense diversity of flora and fauna — is home to 25 million people, the vast majority of whom live in poverty on an income of less than two dollars a day.
More than half of its young people are out of work, even if many boast good qualifications.
The pope said there “were many causes driving excessive deforestation which benefits just a few people… and compromises the future of the country.”
The authorities should also ensure social justice, he added.
Madagascar’s British ambassador Philip Boyle told AFP the country loses around 200,000 hectares of forest each year, adding that “most of the tropical rainforest could disappear by 2040”.
he country’s economy is largely dependent on agriculture, the export of vanilla and cocoa in particular.
“The alarm has been raised by the pope and we are ready to take on the challenge,” environment minister Alexandre Georget told AFP.
He said Madagascar would do more to prevent forest fires, and use tree-planting drones and aerial seed bombing techniques to restore its forests.
“In six months we reached an objective of planting 40,000 hectares of land (98,000 acres), but this is pointless when there are forest fires” said Georget, adding that laws would be enforced and farmers made more aware of the issue.
Liberal-leaning president Andry Rajoelina was elected to a second term last year mainly on promises of jobs and housing.
“Corruption and inequality outrage us,” said Archbishop Desire Tsarahazana, addressing the pope in his welcome speech.
Hope for the young
At Antananarivo’s Soamandrakizay stadium, thousands of young people – mainly scouts – gathered for a vigil. They waited for hours in the heat.
“I am here to ask for the pope’s blessing to face the harsh realities of life, insecurity, poverty and corruption,” said 17-year old student Njara Raherimana, who travelled hundreds of kilometres for the event.
“All this gives me hope for change in my country,” echoed fellow student, Antony Christian Tovonalintsoa, who lives in the outskirts of the capital.
During the vigil, Pope Francis lauded the “joy and enthusiasm” of the singing crowd.
He encouraged the youth not to fall into “bitterness” or to lose hope, even when they lacked the “necessary minimum” to get by and when “educational opportunities were insufficient”
800,000 faithful expected
Sunday will mark the high point of Francis’ visit with a huge mass in the capital expected to be attended by some 800,000 faithful.
Many had already started setting up tents on the outskirts of the city on Friday, armed with posters of the Argentine pontiff.
Prospere Ralitason, a 70-year-old farm worker, arrived with some 5,000 fellow pilgrims from the central eastern town of Ambatondrazaka, 200 kilometres (125 miles) away.
“We are tired, but it’s worth making all these sacrifices to see the pope with our own eyes and receive his blessing,” he told AFP,
John Paul II
The last pope to visit was John Paul II 30 years ago.
“I was a lieutenant when I helped with the security of John Paul II in 1989. Today I am a divisional general and overseeing security for Francis’ visit to Madagascar,” said Samuel Rakotomalala.
Some 700 police officers will be deployed at the site, which is also equipped with 200 surveillance cameras and the 12,000 young scouts will also help out.
In June, 16 people were killed and dozens hurt in a stampede outside a sports stadium in the capital during a free concert.
Francis visited Mozambique earlier in the week. He is also due to travel to the island of Mauritius, which like Madagascar is situated off the eastern coast of Africa.