VATICAN CITY (AFP) – Pope Benedict XVI said Friday he had no answers to suffering in the world during an unusually candid televised question-and-answer session in a first for a leader of the Catholic Church.
Asked by a seven-year-old Japanese girl why she was hit by an earthquake and tsunami, the pope answered: "I also have the same questions: why is it this way? Why do you have to suffer so much while others live in ease?"
"And we do not have the answers but we know that Jesus suffered as you do," the 84-year-old pontiff told the young girl.
Sitting in a white armchair in a Vatican study and speaking in a hoarse voice, the pope faced the camera head on and fielded seven pre-selected questions -- two of which were recorded in Iraq and Ivory Coast.
The relatively informal nature of the interview, which was recorded last week and broadcast in segments during a religious chat show on Italian television, is unprecedented for the normally ceremony-bound papal office.
The Vatican under Benedict has made efforts to embrace modern communication forms, such as the blogosphere and social media networks.
The pope, a respected theologian with an academic mindset, has also tried to reach out to young people by putting Catholicism in simpler terms.
The chat show was controlled -- there was no back-and-forth with the pope -- and there was no mention of the paedophile priest scandals.
Later on Friday however the pope prayed for "the little ones" at an open-air ceremony near the Colosseum -- an apparent reference to the scandals.
"It is a time of darkness... when the disorder in hearts ruins the innocence of the little ones and of the weak," the pope said in an introductory prayer at an open-air Way of the Cross ritual commemorating the death of Jesus Christ.
"It is a time during which a temptation of flight insinuates itself," he said, adding: "No, Lord, we cannot and we do not want to leave."
In a re-enactment of Christ's last hours at the torch-lit ceremony, clergy and lay people took turns carrying a crucifix around the Roman Forum.
Hundreds of people attending the event broke out in applause and cries of "Long live the pope!" at the end of the ritual.
In Friday's broadcast, the pope also urged "all sides" in the conflict in Ivory Coast to renounce violence following months of conflict.
"I am saddened that I can do so little," the pope said.
He then called on Iraqi authorities to ensure that the dwindling Christian minority in that country is protected.
"All the institutions that truly have the possibility to do something in Iraq for you should do it," he said.
In another question, an Italian mother asked whether the soul of her comatose son was still "near him" or had "left his body". She was filmed asking the question in a hospital next to her son.
"Certainly his soul is still present in his body," said the pope, who has reaffirmed the Vatican's position against euthanasia.
"The situation, perhaps, is like that of a guitar whose strings have been broken and therefore can no longer play," he said.
"The instrument of the body is fragile like that, it is vulnerable, and the soul cannot play, so to speak, but remains present," he added.
The broadcast comes just over a week before a ceremony on May 1 that will put Benedict's late predecessor John Paul II on the path to sainthood.
Italian public broadcaster RAI said it had received 2,000 queries for the programme entitled: "Questions about Jesus".
The producer Rosario Carello said Benedict's participation in the programme showed he is "anxious to use every means possible" to get his message out.
The official Vatican daily said in an editorial that the pope's question-and-answer session was part of his "service for truth".
"He wants to make himself understood by children and old people, journalists and believers, intellectuals and politicians," it said.