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VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI has taken a new step in engaging with the public, fielding questions on Italian TV during a Good Friday broadcast and telling a 7-year-old Japanese girl her suffering wasn't in vain and a Muslim woman in the Ivory Coast that peace must prevail.
Benedict was responding to questions submitted over the last few weeks by the general public via state-run RAI television's website, part of the Vatican's new push to engage with the world online and through Facebook, Twitter and other social media.
It was hardly a casual or spontaneous chat with the general public, however. Seven questions were selected from the thousands that poured in, and Benedict recorded the answers on April 15 from behind his desk inside the Apostolic Palace.
He seemed a bit stiff, sitting alone in a big white chair in front of a TV camera while an unseen interviewer read out the letters to him. But the teacher and pastor in Benedict came through as he fielded the questions, which all dealt with suffering and Jesus' death, which Christians recall on Good Friday, and his resurrection which they celebrate on Easter Sunday.
Later Friday, Benedict took part in his more traditional Good Friday commemoration: He knelt in prayer in front of Rome's Colosseum during the dramatic, nighttime Way of the Cross procession, in which the faithful re-enact the final hours of Christ's life. The ancient ritual was being carried out in Jerusalem and around the world.
In another break with tradition, though, children read some of the readings as the procession stopped at each station of the cross inside the Colosseum, and both the meditations and the artwork accompanying them were prepared by two nuns — a first for this pope.
The first question selected for the unusual Good Friday TV event came from Elena, a 7-year-old girl who asked the pope why she felt so afraid after Japan's earthquake shook her house and killed so many children.
"Why do children have to be so sad?" Elena asked. "I'm asking the pope, who speaks with God, to explain it to me."
Benedict spoke simply as if Elena was right there, saying he too wondered why so many innocent people suffer, but that she should take heart in knowing that Jesus had suffered too.
"You can be sure that in the world, in the universe, there are many people who are with you, thinking of you, doing what they can for you to help you," Benedict said. "Be assured, we are with you, with all the Japanese children who are suffering."
He urged an Italian mother, Maria Teresa, to continue her vigil over her son Francesco, who has been in a vegetative state since Easter 2009. Maria Teresa asked Benedict if Francesco's soul still remained.
"He feels the presence of love," Benedict told her, praising her for keeping her vigil as a "true act of love."
"I encourage you, therefore, to carry on, to know that you are giving a great service to humanity with this sign of faith, with this sign of respect for life, with this love for a wounded body and a suffering soul," he said.
Monsignor Paul Tighe, No. 2 in the Vatican's social communications office, said the decision to have the pope field the questions stemmed from the realization that Benedict can no longer just present a message to the public, but must engage more to ensure it is received.
"This is a very simple beginning of what you could call interactivity," Tighe said in a recent interview. "It's launching something new for us."
Benedict has taken preselected questions from carefully chosen Catholics before and responded live in St. Peter's Square, such as when he meets annually with university students. He regularly responds to a handful of pre-submitted and preselected questions from journalists when flying to foreign countries. And he has fielded spontaneous questions from groups of priests.
But the Good Friday session was the first time he had taken questions from the general public, and not necessarily even the Catholic public.
"The advantage of this is it opens up the possibility to people who couldn't hope or aspire to having a direct meeting with the pope, but through the Internet can put their questions there," Tighe said.
That was certainly the case for Bintu, a Muslim woman who greeted the pope in Arabic and asked him in French for his advice on bringing peace back to Ivory Coast, which has been wracked by political violence. "How many innocents have lost their lives!" she said. "How many mothers and how many children traumatized!"
Benedict told her he was grieved that he could do so little, but told her that he had tasked the head of the Vatican's justice and peace office, Cardinal Peter Kodwo Turkson, to try to mediate between the country's opposing factions.
"The only path is to renounce violence, to begin anew with dialogue, with the attempt to find peace together, with a new concern for one another, a new willingness to be open to one another," he said.
The broadcast spliced the pope's responses with commentary from Italian religious affairs experts, as well as video footage of the people asking their questions.
It was a very feminine-focused event, with at least three of the questioners coming from women and a fourth about Mary. Benedict continued that theme with the Good Friday procession at the Colosseum; the meditations for each station of the cross were composed by Sr. Maria Rita Piccione, who heads a federation of Augustinian monasteries in Italy. Another Augustinian nun illustrated the booklet for the service.
In a recent interview with the newspaper of the Italian bishops' conference, Piccione said she didn't know why she had been selected; she said the only communication she had ever had with the pope was when she sent him a letter last year offering her support for the "persecution" he and the church were going through in the midst of the clerical abuse scandal.
While the Q&A session departed from the Vatican's usual Good Friday routine, elsewhere in the world, ancient Christian practices marked the solemn day.
In Jerusalem, Christian pilgrims filled the cobblestone alleyways of the walled Old City to commemorate Jesus' crucifixion there two millennia ago. Thousands of international visitors and local Christians retraced Christ's last steps down the Via Dolorosa, which is Latin for the "Way of Suffering." The route ends at the ancient Church of the Holy Sepulcher, revered as the site of Jesus' crucifixion, burial and his resurrection on Easter Sunday.
"All my life I've been waiting for this wish — I've been wishing for one day to come here in Jerusalem to worship. I wanted to step where my lord stepped," said Roshan Futsom, a pilgrim from Toronto, Canada.
The calendars of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches coincide this year, so the sects are marking the holy week together. This has required careful arrangements to avoid conflicts.
Israeli police were deployed in force in the Old City, which contains sites holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims