VATICAN CITY — A woman assailed Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday, yanking him to the floor as he entered St Peter's Basilica to celebrate Christmas Eve mass.
Video footage showed the woman, wearing a red sweatshirt, leaping over a security barricade and rushing at the 82-year-old pope as he began leading the traditional procession to the vast basilica's altar bearing a gold cross.
As a security guard tried to overpower her, the woman succeeded in grabbing Benedict's vestments near the neck and yanking him down, according to video footage taken by a pilgrim broadcast on Sky News.
Several others fell over in the melee.
Prominent French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, 87, broke a leg in the incident though he was "several metres (yards)" from the pope, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told AFP, adding that the prelate was rushed to hospital.
Benedict was back on his feet within moments and went on to celebrate the mass with apparent calm and confidence.
Lombardi sought to play down the incident, praising Benedict's "great self-control and control of the situation."
He added: "It was an assault, but it wasn't dangerous because she wasn't armed."
The woman was questioned by the Vatican police, the ANSA news agency reported, adding that she said she wanted to hug the pontiff.
Lombardi said she tried to approach Benedict on the same occasion a year ago without getting past the security barrier.
Dressed in gold and white vestments and mitre, the pope showed no discomfort as he read out his Christmas Eve homily, decrying selfishness, which he said "makes us prisoners of our interests and our desires that stand against the truth and separate us from one another."
The spiritual leader of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics said in Italian: "Conflict and lack of reconciliation in the world stem from the fact that we are locked into our own interests and opinions, into our own little private world."
Thursday's incident occurred amid concern over the pope's health prompted by a Vatican decision to schedule the mass two hours early this year instead of the traditional midnight hour due to the pontiff's advanced age.
Lombardi insisted earlier that the change, a Vatican first, was only a "sensible precaution" for the octogenarian pontiff.
The decision was taken several weeks ago. Lombardi said the change was "no cause for alarm," adding that the German pontiff's condition was "absolutely normal" for a man of his age.
Lombardi said the move was aimed at making Christmas "a little less tiring for the pope, who has many engagements during this time".
On Friday, Pope Benedict is to deliver his traditional "urbi et orbi" (to the city and the world) message broadcast to dozens of countries at noon on Friday.
Benedict has had no notable health problems since his 2005 election apart from a fractured wrist from a fall in July while holidaying in northern Italy.
Four years before he became pope however, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spent nearly a month in hospital following a brain haemorrhage, according to the German daily Bild. It said he has suffered from fainting spells.
Pope Benedict's long-serving predecessor John Paul II insisted on observing the tradition of beginning the mass at midnight despite years of ill health, notably the ravages of Parkinson's disease, at the end of his life.
He died in April 2005 aged 84.
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