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Pope Gives Thanks For His 80 Years At Huge Birthday Mass

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VATICAN CITY (AP) _ Pope Benedict gave thanks for his 80 years of life dedicated to the Church with a special Sunday Mass, a celebration tinged with nostalgia which drew a huge crowd to St. Peter's Square.

The Vatican had invited rank-and-file faithful to the late-morning Mass on the steps of St. Peter's Basilica to help the pontiff celebrate both his 80th birthday Monday and the anniversary of his April 19, 2005, election to the pontificate.

Joseph Ratzinger, who would take the name of Benedict as pontiff, was born April 16, 1927, in Marktl Am Inn, a riverside town in the Bavaria region of Germany.

Thousands of pilgrims from Bavaria attended the Mass, and German echoed in the ancient alleys leading to the Vatican as groups streamed to the square. Some of his fellow countrymen and women wore traditional dress, including feather-trimmed hats; others waved German flags.

Benedict told the crowd they were joining him in a reflection of his ``not brief'' life.

Acknowledging their participation, the pope said he was extending, ``my most sincere thanks, from the depth of my heart, to the entire Church, which, like a true family, especially in these days, surrounds me with its affection.''

Benedict's reserved, almost shy style, came through in his homily. In contrast to his late predecessor, John Paul II, who would often speak informally of his youth in Poland, Benedict sounded almost apologetic that he was striking a personal note, however brief, in a religious service.

``The liturgy should not serve to talk about one's ego, of one's self,'' Benedict said.

He thanked his late sister, Maria, and his retired choirmaster brother, Georg, for being steadfastly close to him.

``I give thanks in a special way because, from the first day, I was able to enter and grow in the great community of believers'' in God, Benedict said. He noted that he was born at Easter time, when Christians celebrate in joy their belief in Christ's resurrection.

Benedict appears to carry his years well. He walks briskly, stands through long public ceremonies, and his first book written as pontiff goes on sale Monday.

Right after Benedict's election as pope, his brother expressed worry about the toll that the burdens of the papacy might take on his brother's health. But Benedict's stamina seems to be holding up despite his rigorous schedule.

On Wednesday, he will receive U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the Vatican, and next weekend he will make an overnight pilgrimage to northern Italy. In early May, he will travel to Brazil, where the traditionally strong Catholic Church is losing some faithful to Protestant evangelical churches.

While there are no indications that Benedict suffers from any serious or chronic medical problems, there have been ailments in the past _ including a 1991 hemorrhagic stroke.

Among the pope's birthday presents was a Gospel holder decorated with gold and precious stones, from Munich-Freising Cardinal Friedrich Wetter, and a more secular gift _ 80 bottles of specially brewed Bavarian dark beer and an equal number of steins, carried in the luggage of another bishop from the diocese on a train filled with German pilgrims.

The pope smiled as he gazed across the sea of faithful gathered under brilliant sunshine.

Yellow and white are the official Vatican colors, and yellow pansies were lined up in perfect order across the basilica's steps. Clusters of yellow daffodils brightened the gray cobblestones elsewhere in the square.

The future pope spent most of his earlier years studying and teaching theology in Germany and later trying to ensure that Catholics kept to doctrinal correctness in two decades as a top aide to John Paul II.

In his first two years as pope, Benedict has waged a vigorous Church campaign against same-sex marriage, abortion and euthanasia. He has cracked down on Church clerics whose writings were found not to correctly reflect Vatican teaching. Benedict has also called for the use of more Latin in the Church, including some prayers by the faithful.
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