VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict marked five years as leader of the world’s 1.1 billion Roman Catholics on Monday, calling his church a “wounded sinner” torn between the persecutions of the world and the consolation of God.
The German-born pontiff, who turned 83 last Friday, struck the reflective tone while thanking 46 cardinals at a private lunch in the Vatican for their support in a difficult time, the official newspaper L‘Osservatore Romano reported.
Benedict attended the lunch after a weekend visit to Malta, where he met eight men sexually abused by priests in his latest step to counter the scandal that has rocked the church.
“The pontiff alluded to the sins of the church, recalling that it, a wounded sinner, felt all the more the consolation of God,” L‘Osservatore Romano wrote of the lunch gathering.
It quoted a saying from St Augustine, who called the church a pilgrim who shuttles between “the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God.”
Benedict has avoided mentioning the spreading sexual abuse scandal in public but made several indirect references to the church’s sins and the need to repent. Hundreds of abuse cases, many decades old, have been alleged in recent months in Europe.
Out around Saint Peter’s Square, Catholic pilgrims expressed concern about the scandal and support for the pope.
“The recent years have not been easy,” said Marco Bosco from Spain. “The challenge is to see that everything that happened this year is cleared up. We trust Pope Benedict to do that.”
The low-key anniversary contrasted with the optimism of his election on April 19, 2005, when the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger surprised the world with a gentle approach at odds with his fierce reputation as the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog.
In his first speech, he pledged to continue on the path of his popular predecessor, Pope John Paul, and foster Christian unity and good relations with other religions.
But since then, his papacy has been marked by successive controversies, several with other faiths, and a pattern of poor communications that often poured fuel on the fire.
The recent wave of allegations of child sexual abuse by priests, some going back decades, is the latest in this series. It began in Ireland and spread this year to Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and other European countries.
Benedict has gone further than any pope in condemning abuse, meeting victims and urging bishops to work with the police, but his reluctance to take more aggressive steps -- such as retiring bishops who hid predator priests -- disappoints his critics.
Malta’s President George Abela hinted more was needed when he told Benedict on his arrival there Saturday that it must ensure “justice will not only be done but seen to be done.”
On his first trip only months after his election, Benedict made good on his promise to foster contacts with other religions by visiting a synagogue and meeting other Christian and Muslim leaders in Cologne during the World Youth Days there.
But a year later in Regensburg, Germany, he angered the Muslim world with a lecture in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor saying Islam was violent and irrational.
He said he was misunderstood and made several fence-mending statements and gestures. An olive branch offered by Islamic scholars helped start a dialogue that has since developed well, although the original Regensburg speech still rankles Muslims.
Relations with Jews grew tense as Benedict made the reinforcement of Catholic tradition a top priority of his papacy. Jewish groups have objected to his support for making the late Pope Pius XII a saint, saying he did not do enough to save Jews from the Holocaust.
The readmission of four excommunicated bishops from the ultra-traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X also angered Jews because one of them, Richard Williamson, denied the Holocaust.
British Catholic commentator Austen Ivereigh said Benedict was intent on bringing the schismatic group back into the church despite the problems this might cause. “He feels there are some things more important than good relations,” Ivereigh said.
That decision was also controversial in the church, where some bishops, especially in France and Germany, argued a return to traditions such as the old Latin Mass could mean a rollback of reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).
Editing by Noah Barkin