More than 50,000 altar servers gather at Vatican

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More than 50,000 altar boys and girls Wednesday filled St. Peter's Square at the Vatican to hear Pope Benedict XVI speak at his general audience as part of an international pilgrimage.

"All of this reminds me of the time when I was an altar boy myself," Benedict told pilgrims, most of whom hailed from his native Germany.

"You are not only creating a festive environment in (St Peter's) square, but you are also filling my heart with joy," he told the crowd in German before narrating the history of Saint Tarcisio, who was an altar server.

Among those attending the general audience was the head of the German Bishops Conference, Robert Zollitsch. Zollitsch was recently acquitted by German prosecutors over his alleged cover up of a predator priest because the statute of limitations had expired.

Like many other countries in Europe and America, Germany has been rocked in recent months by sex abuse revelations which have badly damaged the standing of the Church, five years after Benedict's appointment as leader of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics.

But pilgrims did not believe the scandals had impacted on youths' interest in altar service.

"We had no one in our parish who said he would leave the service because of this (the scandals). It's the opposite," Arthur Kessler, an organiser from a parish in the southwestern German diocese of Speyer, told AFP.

Kessler, 42, brought 36 altar boys and girls, including his son, to the Vatican as part of the pilgrimage, organised by the Coetus Internationalis Ministrantium (CIM), the international organisation of altar servers, who are typically young schoolboys and girls.

Paedophilia "is more of a problem of the past than a current one," Martin Gaechter, the president of CIM, told a press conference on Monday, adding that "the proof is the increasing number of people participating to the Rome meeting."

Participants at Wednesday's general audience included youths from Hungary, Italy, Croatia and a dozen other countries.

© 2010 AFP

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