Pope prays at Fatima

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FATIMA, Portugal - Pope Benedict XVI prayed at the site of Mary's apparitions at Fatima and entrusted the world's priests to her, saying the church needs "holy priests, transfigured by grace."

The pope prayed that Mary keep priests from the temptations of evil and "restore calm after the tempest."

While he did not explicitly refer to the priestly sex abuse crisis, the pope's remarks May 12 in some ways echoed what he said on his flight to Portugal the previous day, when he called the scandal a "terrifying" example of sins committed by the church's own ministers and urged a process of penance and purification in the church.

The German pope arrived at Fatima to the cheers of more than 40,000 faithful, many of them sick or disabled, who had waited for hours at the sanctuary. Some watched from stretchers as the pope waved from a pavilion overlooking a vast plaza in front of the shrine, as cold rain showers alternated with sunshine.

The pope then knelt in the Chapel of the Apparitions, built on the site where three shepherd children witnessed a series of apparitions beginning May 13, 1917. In a prayer recited before a statue of Mary, he recalled that Pope John Paul II had placed in its crown a fragment of a gunman's bullet that seriously wounded him May 13, 1981.

He noted that the Polish pope was convinced Mary had saved his life that day.

"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," Pope Benedict said. He left a gold rose at the statue's feet.

After celebrating evening prayer with priests, religious and seminarians, the pope pronounced the "act of entrustment and consecration of priests to the immaculate heart of Mary." In the Year for Priests, he said, it was important to remind priests that Christ is their model of holiness.

"Help us, through your powerful intercession, never to fall short of this sublime vocation, nor to give way to our selfishness, to the allurements of the world and to the wiles of the Evil One," he said.

"Let your presence cause new blooms to burst forth in the desert of our loneliness, let it cause the sun to shine on our darkness, let it restore calm after the tempest," he said. "Come to our aid and deliver us from every danger that threatens us."

The entrustment of the world's priests to Mary was a late addition to the papal program in Fatima. It came as the pope and other church officials have responded to disclosures of hundreds of past cases of sexual abuse of minors by priests in several European countries.

In his comments to reporters aboard his plane May 11, the pope described the scandal as a grave spiritual failing that highlights the need for penance and spiritual conversion inside the church. In a letter to Irish Catholics in March, the pope said abusive priests had betrayed the trust of innocent young people and would answer to God for their sins.

At the evening prayer service in Fatima's immense and modern Church of the Most Holy Trinity, the pope spoke about the importance of the Year for Priests and his hope that the church's ordained ministers would strengthen their commitment to their vocations, above all through prayer.

He told priests that their own spiritual lives were crucial to their effectiveness in proclaiming the radical challenge of the Gospel.

"How much we need this witness today! Many of our brothers and sisters live as if there were nothing beyond this life and without concern for their eternal salvation," he said.

The pope encouraged priests to look out for one another's spiritual health and intervene when necessary.

"Be especially attentive to those situations where there is a certain weakening of priestly ideals or dedication to activities not fully consonant with what is proper for a minister of Jesus Christ. Then is the time to take a firm stand, with an attitude of warm fraternal love, as brother assisting his brother to remain on his feet," he said.

The pope also urged priests to help the church discern new vocations. As with many European countries, Portugal has seen a gradual but consistent drop in the number of seminarians; today there are about 290 seminarians in the country, down nearly 60 percent from 35 years ago.

The vocations rate in Portugal, where nearly 90 percent of the population professes Catholicism, is today among the lowest in Europe. Church officials said increasing participation by young people in Catholic lay movements was a hopeful sign for the future, and they were also hoping the pope's visit would stir new interest in vocations.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2010