Update: Woman who lunged at Pope tried same thing last year

The woman who knocked down Pope Benedict XVI during Christmas Eve mass at St Peter's Basilica will undergo "necessary treatment" in hospital, the Vatican said on Friday.

Susanna Maiolo, 25, was hospitalised after stunning pilgrims in the cavernous basilica by leaping over a security barricade and pulling Pope Benedict, 82, to the floor in a dramatic start to the mass late on Thursday.

Lombardi described the woman, of dual Swiss and Italian nationality, as "apparently unbalanced." Maiolo already tried to get near the pope on the same occasion last year but security guards held her back, the spokesman said.

The New York Times adds,

The Vatican said on Friday that the woman who leapt at Pope Benedict XVI during Christmas Eve Mass, causing him to trip and fall, had tried the same thing last year, only to be stopped by security.

The Vatican identified the woman as Susanna Maiolo, 25, a Swiss and Italian citizen with a history of mental problems. It said she was not armed. The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said she had tried to leap at the pope after Midnight Mass last year, before security guards stopped her. The pope was unhurt.

Masses of pilgrims gasped as a security guard tried to overpower Maiolo, who succeeded in grabbing Pope Benedict's vestments near the neck and pulling him to the floor as several other people fell over in the melee.

Relieved applause broke out as the pontiff got back on his feet within moments.

Pope Benedict went on to celebrate the mass undaunted by the assault, speaking out in his homily against selfishness as Christians across the world celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ.

The pontiff was to proceed as normal Friday with his Christmas programme, delivering his traditional "urbi et orbi" (to the city and the world) speech at midday from the balcony of St Peter's, the Vatican said.

Prominent French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, 87, broke a leg in the incident though he was several metres (yards) away.

He will undergo surgery for a fracture of a thigh bone, the Vatican said in a communique.

Lombardi sought to play down Thursday's incident, praising Pope Benedict's "great self-control and control of the situation."

He added: "It was an assault, but it wasn't dangerous because she wasn't armed."

The Christmas Eve mass is one of few occasions when tourists and pilgrims can get close to the pontiff.

The ANSA news agency reported that Vatican police questioned Maiolo and said she appeared confused and agitated, and said she wanted to hug the pontiff.

Papal security has been tightened since Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turk, shot and nearly killed Benedict's predecessor John Paul II in St Peter's Square in May 1981.

Thursday's incident occurred less than two weeks after a man with a history of mental problems attacked Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi after a political rally in Milan, breaking his nose and inflicting other facial injuries.

The attack on the pope took place amid concern over his health after a Vatican decision to schedule the mass two hours earlier than the traditional midnight hour due to the pontiff's advanced age.

Lombardi insisted that the change, a Vatican first, was only a "sensible precaution" for the octogenarian pontiff.

The decision was taken several weeks ago and Lombardi said it was "no cause for alarm," adding that the German pontiff's condition was "absolutely normal" for a man of his age.

Lombardi said the move was aimed at making Christmas "a little less tiring for the pope, who has many engagements during this time".

Benedict has had no notable health problems since his 2005 election apart from a fractured wrist from a fall in July while holidaying in northern Italy.

Four years before he became pope, however, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger spent nearly a month in hospital following a brain haemorrhage, according to the German daily Bild. It said he has suffered from fainting spells.

John Paul II insisted on observing the tradition of beginning the mass at midnight despite years of ill health, notably the ravages of Parkinson's disease, at the end of his life. He died in April 2005 aged 84.