Pope knocked to the floor at Christmas Eve Mass

Pope Benedict XVI tumbled to the marble floor of St. Peter’s Basilica on Thursday night after a woman tackled him on his way to preside over Christmas Eve Mass.

Benedict lost his gold-trimmed miter and staff when the woman grabbed the front of his robe and pulled him to the floor. He was not harmed, quickly recovered and was able to go ahead with the Mass.

Spectators and the pope’s security personnel, however, were startled, with gasps audible as black-suited guards shoved aside acolytes to reach the fallen pontiff.

There were reports that the woman, dressed in a red hooded jacket, had attempted to pull a similar stunt last year.

The woman was described by Italian news agency ANSA as confused and agitated. The agency said she was being held by Vatican security and quoted her as saying she merely wanted to embrace the pontiff.

Father Federico Lombardi, the pope’s spokesman, told reporters that the woman, who jumped a security barrier in the center aisle of the cavernous basilica to crash the procession, was “apparently unbalanced” emotionally.

It was the second time in two weeks that a major figure has been attacked in Italy -- although technically, Vatican City, though located in Rome, is not part of Italy.

On Dec. 13, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was clobbered by a mentally disturbed man wielding a metal statue of the cathedral of Milan. Berlusconi, who suffered a broken nose and teeth as well as a bruised ego, is taking a couple of weeks off to recover.

The assault gave rise to much soul-searching over the hate-filled, polarizing nature of Italian politics.

But in the case of the 82-year-old pope, Thursday’s incident seems not to be a political act but the misguided work of an overzealous, and perhaps mentally impaired, pilgrim. Other questions would be raised, however, if she turns out to be the same woman who at last year’s Mass also attempted to breach security barriers.

In the kerfuffle Thursday, another senior cleric, 87-year-old Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, was also knocked to the ground. He suffered a broken leg and was hospitalized.

The pope’s security is omnipresent and generally well-trained. There have been lapses -- the late Pope John Paul II was shot in St. Peter’s Square in 1981 -- but inside the basilica, guards probably considered themselves to be on safe ground. Worshipers must pass through metal detectors to enter the church.

The Vatican this year moved up Christmas Eve Mass, traditionally held at midnight to mark the birth of Jesus, by two hours, citing Benedict’s fatigue during a busy holiday season. Wilkinson covered the Vatican as The Times’ Rome Bureau chief from 2003 to 2008.