CASSINO, Italy (AP) – Pope Benedict XVI paid homage Sunday to the victims of World War II, visiting a Polish military cemetery at the site of a decisive battle in southern Italy and praying that peace may prevail over war today.

Benedict, who was forced to join the Hitler Youth as a child in Germany, made a pilgrimage to the Benedictine monastery at Monte Cassino, which was leveled during a 1944 Allied bombardment and was the site of a bloody ground battle between German and Allied forces.

“In this place, where so many lost their lives … we pray especially for the souls of the fallen, commending them to God’s infinite mercy, and we pray for an end to the wars that continue to afflict our world,” Benedict said in English at the end of Mass celebrated at the foot of the monastery in the city of Cassino.

Later, he lit a candle at the austere Polish cemetery cut into the mountainside near the monastery and prayed that God give today’s victims of war “the strength of invincible hope, the courage of daily actions of peace.”

The cemetery contains the remains of Polish troops who, fighting alongside the Allies, died trying to take control of the abbey and surrounding positions from German troops. The battle for the monastery was decisive for the Allied advance on Rome, 80 miles (130 kilometers) to the north.

The Vatican stressed that Benedict was praying for all the war’s fallen from all nations.

Benedict noted that all Benedictine monasteries – including the rebuilt one at Monte Cassino – carry the word “PAX,” or peace, at their entrances.

“This is raised as a silent call to reject all forms of violence and to build peace: in families, in communities, among peoples and within all humanity,” the pope said during a prayer service in the abbey’s basilica.

Benedict also was making a personal pilgrimage to the Monte Cassino monastery, which has long been dear to him. It was founded in 529 by St. Benedict of Nursia, known as the father of Western monasticism and a patron saint of Europe.

The pope has spoken frequently about his strong affinity for St. Benedict, a hermit whose writings became the basis for the Benedictine order.

In his first general audience as pope, in April 2005, Benedict said he had chosen to call himself Pope Benedict XVI to pay homage to St. Benedict, whom he said was a “fundamental point of reference for European unity and a strong reminder of the undeniable Christian roots of her culture and civilization.”

During the prayer service with Benedictine monks, the pope praised the saint for spreading the principles of study, prayer and work throughout Europe. “Let us pray that Europe may always know to value this patrimony of these Christian principles and ideals, which constitute an immense cultural and spiritual richness,” he said.

The pope also cited the saint’s commitment to work during his homily before thousands of the faithful during Mass, and said he was particularly concerned about the plight of workers in Cassino, home to a Fiat plant at risk amid the economic downturn.

“The wound of unemployment, which afflicts this land, compels those responsible for public life – businessmen and others who are able – to find valid solutions to the labor crisis, creating new jobs so families can be protected,” Benedict said.

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