Pope Benedict XVI praised the work of the Catholic Church in southern Italy

SANTA MARIA DI LEUCA, Italy Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday praised the work of the Roman Catholic Church in southern Italy as he began a two-day visit to the impoverished Apulia region.

Tradition holds that it was here that Saint Peter, the disciple of Jesus considered the founder of the Christian Church, arrived from Palestine and headed to Rome to begin the evangelisation of Europe.

"This promontory between Europe and the Mediterranean, between West and East, reminds us that the Church has no borders, that it is universal," said the 81-year-old pontiff.

Benedict also hailed the "generosity" of the port city of Brindisi that for years took in thousands of refugees from the former Yugoslavia and Albania.

The German-born pope celebrated an open-air mass attended by several thousand people under a hot sun at a sanctuary dedicated to the Virgin Mary overlooking the sea in this town at the tip of the heel of Italy's "boot."

"Here as in all of southern Italy, Church communities are places where the young generation can learn hope, not as a Utopia but as the tenacious confidence in the force of good," the pope said.

"For the Church, geographical, cultural, ethnic and even religious borders are an invitation to evangelisation," he said.

Local Bishop Vito De Grisantis, greeting the pope, stressed the "need for rapid social, civil and economic development" in southern Italy, "especially to help families and young people for whom unemployment is an ever more serious problem."

The pope replied: "In a context in which individualism is more and more encouraged ... the first service of the Church is to educate in the social sense, towards paying attention to those around you, to solidarity and sharing."

He added: "The Church can have a positive influence, especially on the social level," because it fosters "open and constructive human relationships, respectful of the service of the humblest and the weakest."

Later Saturday, at a vigil with young people in nearby Brindisi, the pope warned against "the temptation of easy profits."

The Church and several humanitarian groups offered "refuge and help, despite the economic difficulties that continue to affect this region in particular," he said.

The pontiff was set to celebrate another open-air mass in Brindisi on Sunday.


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