R O M E, Nov. 14 - Pope John Paul II made a
historic speech to Italy's parliament Thursday, urging Italians to
work for world peace, uphold their Christian values and have more
The visit the first time a pope has appeared before the Italian
parliament underscored the warmth that the country feels for the
Polish-born John Paul, the first non-Italian pontiff in 455
It also showed that Italy and the Roman Catholic Church have
healed the wounds that a century ago prompted popes to call
themselves "prisoners" of the Vatican rather than accept Italy's
government as legitimate.
The pope referred to the once-strained relations but said the
bonds were now strong. He said Italy's very identity "would be most
difficult to understand without reference to Christianity, its
Lawmakers interrupted the speech about 20 times with applause and
gave the pope a standing ovation, with some cheering "Viva il papa!"
at the end of his speech.
However, the visit was not without opposition. A few deputies
said they wouldn't attend to underscore that Italy remains a secular
country, and a dozen or so gay activists protested at a nearby
The speech had an unexpected outcome: A fugitive Mafia boss
turned himself in after being inspired by the pope's comments on
family values, said his lawyer, Roberto Tricoli. In September,
Benedetto Marciante was convicted in absentia and sentenced to 30
years in prison for homicide and Mafia association, Tricoli
The pope, 82, covered most of the general topics he has addressed
in his 24-year pontificate, including respect for the dignity of
man, democracy, peace and justice.
He decried the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and
international terrorism "which has taken on a new and fearful
dimension, involving in a completely distorted way the great
religions. Christian countries, he said, should work for peace and
not allow themselves "to be imprisoned by a 'logic' of conflict
incapable of offering real solutions."
But his emphasis was on Italy and particularly what he called
"the crisis of the birth rate."
While Italy is largely Roman Catholic, the church teaching that
couples should be open to having children is not enthusiastically
followed: Italy has one of the lowest birth rates in the world 9.3
births per 1,000 inhabitants and one of the oldest populations.
Italian women on average have 1.23 children, a figure under the
European Union average of about 1.48 and well under the American
average of about 2.1.
The United Nations has warned that Italy's economic future is at
risk because the shrinking work force won't be able to support its
aging population without an influx of migrant workers.
The pope called the situation "another grave threat that bears
upon the future of this country, one which is already conditioning
its life and its capacity for development."
"Above all, it encourages indeed I would dare to say, forces
citizens to make a broad and responsible commitment to favor a
clear-cut reversal of this tendency," he said.
Politicians, he said, should adopt initiatives that "can make the
task of having children and bringing them up less burdensome both
socially and economically." And parents should instill in their
children strong moral values, while schools should develop in a
"healthy climate of freedom."
The pope urged Italian authorities to grant clemency to
prisoners, saying a reduction in their sentences "would be clear
evidence of a sensitivity" that would encourage their
And he repeated his call for European leaders, who are drafting a
new European Union constitution, to recognize the role Christianity
has played on the continent.
The pope appeared in strong form, speaking clearly through the
45-minute speech and walking on his own, with a cane, to his car.
The car was parked in a square outfitted with big-screen TVs that
broadcast his speech live.
Anita Marchesi, a first-year university student from the Italian
island of Sardinia, was among the throngs of people watching the
speech, which she called historic and important for the country.
"The pope is right in asking for more children," she said. "We're
well aware of it in Sardinia, where the older generations all come
from large families and most of us are one or two."
The speech represented the latest step in improving relations
between Italy and the church, which ruled a vast swath of the
Italian peninsula until the mid-19th century.
When the new Italian army seized the territory when Italy was
unified in 1861, the pope was only left with Rome and some coastal
areas, which were finally taken in 1870.
At the time, the government guaranteed the pope independence
within what is now the Vatican and offered to compensate the church
for the lost lands. But Pope Pius IX refused to recognize the
government and called himself a "prisoner" of the Vatican.
The so-called "Roman Question" was resolved in 1929, when the
Vatican and Italy signed a treaty that recognized both as sovereign
|Pope John Paul II waves to
Italian MPs gathered in the Italian Chamber of Deputies in
Rome Thursday, Nov. 14, 2002, as he leaves after his visit.
(AP Photo/Enrico Oliverio-Ufficio Stampa della Presidenza
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