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VATICAN CITY – An estimated 15,000 priests massed in St. Peter’s Square on Thursday in one of the largest such gatherings in a show of support for Pope Benedict XVI and the priesthood itself amid the clerical abuse scandal.
Benedict was to answer some selected questions from the prelates in an eagerly anticipated vigil service Thursday evening. It’s not know whether Benedict will refer to the crisis, but his No. 2 told the prelates Wednesday that the scandal had pained and damaged the church and shown the need for a spiritual rebirth.
The vigil and Friday morning Mass marked the end of the church’s year of the priest – a year that has been marred by revelations of hundreds of new cases of clerical abuse, cover-up and Vatican inaction to stop it.
“The wound will take time to heal and nothing will be as if nothing had happened,” the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, wrote in a front-page editorial Thursday.
The newspaper insisted that, while the year of the priest was a difficult one, it was not the “annus horribilis” that some have depicted.
“In reality it was a year of grace,” it wrote, because “the seed of the priests’ inner renewal that has been planted … will bear fruit.”
There is some speculation that Benedict may again refer to the scandal, following his recent comments en route to Portugal during which he acknowledged that it was born of the “sin within the church” and not from outside elements. Previously Vatican officials, Vatican publications and cardinals had blamed the scandal on the media, the Masons and anti-Catholic lobbies, among others.
On Wednesday, during his weekly general audience, Benedict urged prayers for the priests gathered for the event, which has taken on something of the feel of a rally in support of the pontiff and the priesthood itself amid the scandal.
Priests gathering in St. Peter’s Square spoke openly about the scandal, saying it was painful – even shameful to them since it reflected badly on all of them.
“Well, I think it was really first a matter of pain, of sadness then a bit of shame because in Belgium we had bishops, not priests who had to resign,” said Belgian priest the Rev. Jean Pierre Herman.
“The church isn’t perfect. Priests are men. Among priests there are those who will become saints, there are good priests and there are criminals as well. So it happens,” he said.
Said the Rev. Fernando Cerero from the diocese di Coatzacoalcos in Mexico, “We felt much shame and sadness, but this is an opportunity (for priests) to reflect on our ministry.”
“It is an opportunity for holiness,” he said.
Associated Press Writer Egidio DiBenedetto contributed to this report.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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