Clutching a braided palm as a symbol of hope and peace, Pope John Paul II led thousands of young people in a Palm Sunday service in St. Peter’s Square, a celebration the Vatican described as an “antidote” to the fears of a world grappling with terror and war.
Youths, some wearing colorful African robes and Eastern European folk dress, waved towering palm fronds and olive branches as they cheered the pontiff, who looked wan and struggled to pronounce his words.
Aides guided the pope, sitting in a chair on a wheeled base, to the edge of the altar stairs so he could distribute Communion to faithful.
The pontiff, who has Parkinson’s disease and who turns 84 next month, slowly read all of his homily, in which he recalled that Palm Sunday marked Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, only days before his crucifixion.
Jesus “emerged himself in that crowd so fickle that in a few days it went from joyous enthusiasm to homicidal scorn,” John Paul said.
About 50,000 people filled the square, where Italian police officers stood guard and Vatican plainclothes security kept a close eye on the crowd. Security has been heightened in the last few months at the Vatican amid general concerns that Islamic extremists could target the heart of Roman Catholicism.
Palm Sunday inaugurates Holy Week, a taxing series of public appearances for the pope, including a Way of the Cross procession at the Colosseum on Good Friday and Easter Sunday Mass in the square.
The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, next to photographs of the terror bombings in Madrid, Middle East violence and the Iraq war, described Sunday’s gathering of young people as a “powerful antidote” to fear.
“The most insidious enemy of young people is called fear,” the Vatican paper said. “An ‘expert’ of hope, like John Paul II, knows this well.” The pontiff, it said, invites youths to “ally themselves on Christ’s side, and not with the sowers of hate, the mercenaries of terror, the prophets of death.”
Pope: ‘Don’t be afraid to go countercurrent’
In his homily, John Paul told young people: “Certainly the message that the Cross communicates isn’t easy to understand in our era, in which material well-being and convenience are proposed and sought after as priority values.”
“Don’t be afraid to go countercurrent!” he exhorted his listeners.
John Paul has relied heavily on the optimism and enthusiasm of youth to help spread the Church’s message, and every two years he had joined hundreds of thousands of them in pep rallies and prayer services in cities including Buenos Aires, Denver, Manila and Paris.
The next World Youth Day jamboree will in Cologne, Germany, in August 2005.