FATIMA, Portugal – Pope Benedict XVI traveled to the famous shrine of Fatima on Wednesday, recalling the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II and other “sufferings” of the church, which he has said included the clerical sex abuse scandal.

Benedict didn’t refer directly to the crisis a day after issuing his most explicit admission of the church’s 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 today 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.

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.

On Tuesday, the pope blamed the church’s own sins for the clerical abuse scandal — not a campaign mounted by outsiders — and called for profound purification to end what he called the “greatest persecution” the church has endured.

His strong comments placed responsibility for the crisis squarely on the sins of pedophile priests, repudiating the Vatican’s initial response to the scandal in which it blamed the media as well as pro-choice and pro-gay marriage advocates for mounting what it called a campaign against the church and the pope.

Speaking en route to Portugal, Benedict said the Catholic Church had always suffered from problems of its own making but that “today we see it in a truly terrifying way.”

“The greatest persecution of the church doesn’t come from enemies on the outside but is born from the sins within the church,” the pontiff said. “The church needs to profoundly relearn penitence, accept purification, learn forgiveness but also justice.”

The comments marked Benedict’s most thorough admission of the church’s guilt in creating the scandal.


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