You're through to the Pope: Benedict mulls big issues in TV first

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The Independent Online

Pope Benedict XVI avoided the controversies that have buffeted the Catholic Church during the past year in a carefully managed performance for his first ever televised question and answer session, screened yesterday.

The reasons for suffering, the need to end conflict and the sanctity of human life were the safe subjects selected by programme makers for Rai Uno – Italy's equivalent of BBC1. The interview, pre-recorded last week in the Vatican library, was timed to be on the air at 3pm, traditionally given as the hour of Christ's death on the cross.

None of the seven questions dealt with the scandal of paedophile priests, that has damaged the image of the Church in recent years. Easter Week last year was dominated by the shocking revelations of child abuse by clerics.

"We asked the Pope to respond not to the questions of journalists but to the questions of the public. And he agreed," beamed host Rosario Carello, who had the idea for the programme and picked the questions from the 2,000 that poured in.

Benedict, 84, dressed in white and sitting on a high-backed chair, responded to his inquirers in a slow, husky voice. The first question came from a seven-year-old Japanese girl, traumatised by the recent earthquake and tsunami, who asked him "why so many children had died and why so many children were frightened".

The Pope replied that he did not have answers but added it was "important to be aware that this suffering wasn't empty, it wasn't in vain, but behind it was a good plan, a plan of love", adding that "we are with you and all the Japanese children who are suffering."

After polite applause from the studio audience, three expert guests attempted to fill in the theological gaps and pad out the fleeting pontifical remarks. The pattern was repeated for the other questions.

The second question came from Nadia Teresa, who sat beside her comatose son. "Has the soul of my son Francesco, who has been in a vegetative state since Easter 2009, left his body as he is no longer conscious, or is it still there?" she asked.

"Of course it's still there," Benedict responded, comparing the situation to a guitar with broken strings. "The instrument of the body is fragile like that, it is vulnerable, and the soul cannot play, so to speak, but remains present," the Pope told her. "I am also sure his hidden soul feels your love deep down."

In recent years the Vatican has fiercely opposed calls by some Italians to allow food and hydration to be stopped for such patients. The third question came from Iraq, when a group of young Christians in Baghdad asked what could be done to halt the persecution they were suffering. Benedict said: "I pray every day for the people in Iraq," adding that the whole of Iraqi society needed to be "reconstructed through dialogue" with "all groups and faiths".

Although the broadcast did not mention the paedophilia scandal, the Pope appeared to allude vaguely to it on Thursday when he commented on the forthcoming beatification of his predecessor John Paul II, noting that the Church had both "shameful mistakes and luminous examples".

In other answers, Benedict commented on the brutal conflict in the Ivory Coast and the nature of the Resurrection. After the Rai broadcast, the Pope celebrated Good Friday Mass in Saint Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.

The Pope Responds

*To the mother of a man in a coma: "The situation, perhaps, is like that of a guitar whose strings have been broken and therefore can no longer play."

*To a seven-year-old asking him to explain the suffering after the tsunami in Japan: "We do not have the answers but we know that Jesus suffered as you do."

*On violence in the Ivory Coast: "Violence never comes from God, never helps bring anything good, but is a destructive means and not the path to escape difficulties."