The Pope meets gay governor on first road trip

Pope Benedict XVI has made his first trip outside Rome since his election six weeks ago, flying by helicopter to the south-eastern port city of Bari for the culmination of a Catholic conference where he called for Christian unity.

Pope Benedict XVI has made his first trip outside Rome since his election six weeks ago, flying by helicopter to the south-eastern port city of Bari for the culmination of a Catholic conference where he called for Christian unity.

The Bavarian pontiff who, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was known as Pope John Paul II's "enforcer of the faith", took the opportunity of the trip to the province of Puglia to underline the commitment to bringing all followers of Christ together which has been a dominant theme of his papacy since his election last month. His message was given added significance by the fact that the recently elected governor of Puglia, Nicchi Vendola, describes himself as gay, Catholic and communist and cohabits with his gay partner.

In his sermon at an outdoor mass in the city, attended according to the Vatican by 200,000 people, the Pope said: "I want to repeat my willingness to assume, as a fundamental commitment, working to reconstitute the full and visible unity of all the followers of Christ, with all my energy ...

"How can we communicate with the Lord if we don't communicate among ourselves?" Bari is a city of high symbolism for Christian ecumenism, looking out to the Orthodox lands to the east and being the repository of the bones of St Nicholas of Myra, a 4th-century saint revered in both the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox churches. The Pope termed it "a land of encounter and dialogue with our Christian brothers to the east".

Under a broiling sun, Pope Benedict also took an outing through the cheering crowds in a boxy, bullet-proof Popemobile of the type made famous by his predecessor.

The three-hour excursion was conducted under heavy security. The Pope flew to Bari by helicopter. All car traffic in the city was banned for the duration of the visit, hundreds of police patrolled the streets and a ship of the Italian navy was anchored offshore.

The retinue of senior members of the Italian government in attendance included the speakers of both houses of parliament, and Giuseppe Pisanu, Minister of the Interior.

The Pope was welcomed to the city by Mr Vendola, Bari's most controversial new contribution to the Italian political landscape. As well as his outspoken views on homosexuality and communism, the new leader of Puglia is the first such eminence to sport an earring. Governor Vendola said that the pontiff's visit to the capital of his province was "a cause of joy for me and for all the people of Puglia. We will welcome Benedict XVI with all the solemnity and joy that this important event merits".

But on the eve of the Pope's visit, Mr Vendola had made clear his differences with the Pope's hard-line views on homosexuality. In a newspaper interview, he said: "Recognition of civil unions does not represent any threat to the institution of marriage and the family. There is a reality of loving co-operation which asks to be granted the dimension of a citizen's right."

As Cardinal Ratzinger, the Pope declared homosexuality to be "a more or less strong tendency ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil", and worked hard to suppress Catholic gay organisations. This included prohibiting priests and nuns from doing pastoral work with gay men and lesbians.

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