Pope Benedict XVI traveled to the Catholic shrine of Fatima today, recalling the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II and other "sufferings" of the church, which he has said included the church sex abuse scandal.
Benedict didn't refer directly to the crisis a day after issuing his most explicit admission of the church's own guilt. But he did remind priests and seminarians gathered at a Vespers service that they must remain loyal to their vocation and help one another when "there is a certain weakening of priestly ideals."
He thanked them for their dedication — "often silent and certainly not easy" — and urged them to seek out new recruits for the priesthood.
Benedict traveled to Fatima to mark the anniversary of the date — May 13, 1917 — when three Portuguese shepherd children reported having visions of the Virgin Mary. He will celebrate a Mass here Thursday to mark the anniversary of the visions and the 10th anniversary of the beatifications of two of the shepherds.
John Paul was also shot in St. Peter's Square on May 13, 1981 — a coincidence that led him to believe that the Virgin's "unseen hand" had "rescued him from death in the assassination attempt," Benedict said in a prayer at the shrine.
Pope 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. After praying silently before the statue, he placed on it a golden rose — a symbol of papal gratitude since medieval times.
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 third and last visit in 2000, 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: a description of the assassination attempt on John Paul.
En route to Portugal yesterday, the pontiff was asked if the suffering of 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."
Many of the pilgrims attending today's service walked for days to reach Fatima, with some making the final marble stretch of several hundred meters (yards) up to the chapel on their knees in prayer. Many said Benedict's visit gave them hope, particularly as Portugal — western Europe's poorest country — confronts Europe's economic crisis.
Dozens of shops around the shrine selling religious-themed trinkets also offer imitation body parts in wax, such as limbs, hearts and ears, which the faithful cast into flames by the Chapel of the Apparitions with a prayer asking for the healing of their ailments.