John Paul II himself admitted his surprise. Looking over the crowd of youngsters who had gathered in St. Peter's Square, the Holy Father put aside his prepared speech and said: "We are very many today. From here I cannot see all of you and I cannot see where the crowd ends. No doubt it goes to the Tiber." The children all shrieked with laughter.
At 6 a.m. the Square embraced by Bernini's columns presented a surrealist spectacle. The lampposts shed light on workers who were rapidly placing chairs for the event, in the same place where 130,000 people had greeted the New Year with the Pope. At the entrance to the Square there were groups hoping to get in early to get good seats. At this point in time, 13 special trains full of children were arriving in Rome, and there were more than 600 buses from all over Europe. In total, 40 countries were represented by some 3,000 non-Italian children.
The atmosphere was overflowing with enthusiasm. Mass in the Vatican Basilica, presided by Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, president of the Jubilee Vatican Committee, was the first celebration; it was attended by 8,000 children who rose at the crack of dawn. After the Mass, all the children met in St. Peter's Square, enduring the cold and long wait before greeting the Pope.
The Holy Father appeared just before 11 a.m., while the sun warmed the surroundings; a special hymn could be heard in the background, composed for the occasion: "Apostles of Joy." Prior to the Pope's arrival, the children listened to Bishop Sergio Biguzzi of Makeni in Sierra Leone, who was surrounded by ten child soldiers that he rescued from the squadrons that had kidnapped them and forced them to fight in the civil war that lacerates the country. The Bishop said that today he saw his dream of freeing these children, who instead of playing with toys were accustomed to real rifles, was closer than ever, since a group of them had come to Rome to meet the Pope.
When the Pontiff appeared there was an explosion of excitement. The children had white caps, which they waved vigorously. The human river of children not only filled St. Peter's Square, but overflowed into the adjacent Via della Conciliazione.
"The Jubilee brings everyone a message of hope," the children's message said to the Holy Father. "Because of the Jubilee, we the children and youth commit ourselves to give our help so that the new millennium will be better, more beautiful and more just for all."
"God is a good Father who is always ready to forgive and offers opportunities to his children so that they will begin to live and hope. Once again he opens his heart to us so that each one, repentant of his sins and committed to doing good deeds with acts of faith and love, will begin again on the road that leads to Him," the Holy Father replied.
"Children are the future of society. Adults must pay attention to them in order to construct a more free, authentic and just society," John Paul II emphasized.
Along with the children was the entire soccer team of Rome, led by Fabio Capello, the trainer. This team, which is doing very well this season, paid the fare of many children from poor countries to be able to come to the Eternal City.
The celebration continued in the afternoon with a music festival in which children's groups from all over the world performed. ZE00010203
The Vatican Jubilee Committee has joined forces with Bishop Sergio Biguzzi of Makeni, who is determined to buy the freedom of the young recruits. Throughout the world, especially in Africa, Asia and Latin America, there are some 300,000 soldiers under age 18. The freedom of each can be purchased for about $100. On the eve of the Children's Jubilee, the Church has launched a worldwide campaign to try to rescue the greatest possible number of child soldiers.
These boys are very much in demand, both by guerrillas as well as regular armies in countries in conflict. Their strength lies precisely in their vulnerability. It is very easy to intoxicate them with drugs and alcohol to turn them into fighting machines, more courageous than common soldiers.
Bishop Biguzzi, who himself was held hostage by guerrillas a few months ago, spoke about the situation these boys have experienced and about the Church's initiatives in Sierra Leone to give the children in this tormented African country a future. "All experiences are painful, as they have been taken from their families against their own and their relatives' wills. Obviously, the conditions were different with each case, as they have been with various guerrilla groups. Some suffered more than others. Now that they have been freed from the war and welcomed by Caritas centers, we try to help them to live a normal life. For the time being, we have been reintegrating them in the schools. Those who are older are beginning to learn a trade. We try to contact their families, as they often don't know where they are. Needless to say, the families are also ignorant of the children's whereabouts. We then insure that the family can take their child in, and if possible we follow up by helping the respective families and by listening to the boys. If for some reason we are unable to reintegrate them into the family, they remain in the center for a period of time for shelter and rehabilitation."
The faces of these boys are marked by the terror that only acute violence can elicit. The Church in Sierra Leone hopes that the Jubilee will renew their hope. "We have brought them to Rome for this very reason. Italian Catholic Action gave them the assistance needed to travel. For them and their friends, this trip is a moment of rest. When they return, they will be able to tell many stories, especially about the affection they have received here in Rome. This can give them new hope and the desire to live a normal life," Bishop Biguzzi said.
For this tragedy of the forceful recruitment of thousands of children to stop, pressure must be exerted on governments and international authorities who are responsible to halt the arms trade, explained the Bishop. "Undoubtedly, it is the first step that must be taken. Moreover, it is important to undertake the task of sensitizing local governments so that national resources will not be used to purchase arms in the name of national defense. This is an argument that becomes an excuse to silence those who disagree with the official line," Bishop Biguzzi concluded. ZE00010201
Newspapers recounted stories of thousands of motorists who celebrated the new year while sitting in their cars, stuck in traffic around Rome. Residents in the heart of the city also complained that street closings kept them imprisoned in their homes.
Much of the anger was directed squarely at Mayor Francesco Rutelli, who fired back with charges that the critics want the Jubilee celebration to fail. "For two years, there have been attempts to brand the preparations for the Jubilee as a catastrophe," Rutelli angrily told a news conference. "There have been no catastrophes."
The Vatican also received a share of criticism for lack of preparation for the special Jubilee Day for Children in St. Peter's Square where Pope John Paul II met with 100,000 children. Some parents said there were no provisions to provide food or hot drinks since many restaurants were closed. Many of the families waited all day in the abnormally cold weather to meet the Pope, and newspapers reported that five children were hospitalized with mild cases of exposure.
"The government of Israel trusts that the wishes for peace, security, economic wellbeing and coexistence based on mutual respect may be shared by the citizens of all communities. The government is determined in its commitment to guarantee the right of Christians to freedom of religion, worship and access to the Holy Places. These rights, as well as those related to economic stability and personal security, must always be safeguarded so that the Christian community can continue to prosper, free of worries over civil, social, economic and personal security," Barak's message stated.
The Prime Minister ended his message with these words: "The Christian population has always been an inseparable part of the human fabric of the country and the government is committed to do everything possible to maintain the constructive and creative contribution of this community to the State, society and the development of Christian life in Israel."
In another message to Christians worldwide, Israeli President Ezer Weizman said: "The State of Israel gives much importance to the Christian population and will do everything possible to guarantee that all Christians in the country enjoy full security and mutual respect. Jerusalem is a central point for the three great monotheist religions of the world and Israel is committed to guaranteeing freedom of worship and access to religious places, security of persons and security of all pilgrims. Therefore, I warmly welcome all who will visit the Holy Land." ZE00010207
Jubilee volunteers wearing blue vests bearing the words, "I was a stranger and you welcomed me," distribute programs for the prayer, including the Jubilee hymn. The service lasts 30 minutes, and can also be heard on Vatican Radio. Wednesday Vespers each week will be specifically directed toward youth.
Each evening, the prayer will be led by a different Bishop or Monsignor. The Pope is not scheduled to appear at the prayer as a general rule.
To verify whether the event will be held on a given day, pilgrims can call +39 (06) 69 62 21. Organizers recommend that visitors arrive 30 minutes in advance. ZE00010104
At an ecumenical service in St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh's Rt. Rev. John Cairns, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, spoke about a bright future.
"As we enter this new era, make a renewed promise for a renewed society in a new Scotland," he said. "In all our division there has remained unity, in all our darkness there has been light and in all out humility there has been a purpose."
Cairns was joined by Cardinal Thomas Winning, whose attendance signaled a new start for the churches in Scotland. A decade ago his presence in a Protestant cathedral would have been almost impossible in a country which has been scarred by bitter religious division.
In his address the cardinal urged people to seek a better, fairer, happier world: "In every century, Christians have been willing to go against the grain of power seeking selfishness; been ready to give up their comfort for the sake of goodness and ready to defend the weak, the humble and the defenseless. Let us go forth to celebrate cheerfully our Heavenly Father's goodness and seek more fervently a better, fairer, and happier world."
Cardinal Winning also asked every child be allowed to grow in trust and skill and for everyone give in love.
Princess Anne read from St. Luke's Gospel during the hour-long event which featured prayers, readings, and hymns.
In October, Cardoso presented the statue of St. Anne as a gift to the Holy Father, but residents of the town said the 18th century carving was not Cardoso's to give and should be returned. "On the religious side, I'm sure it's in good hands, but for the sake of Brazilian identity the statue has to come back," one of the hundreds of residents who signed a petition demanding the statue's return told Globo television.
The Foreign Ministry said that the Holy Father had planned to return the statue to Brazil all along. "As soon as the Vatican chooses a church to house the statue it is coming back," a ministry spokesman said. But Paracatu residents want to the statue returned to them. "With the saint having been in the hands of the Pope and then coming home, Paracatu will be blessed," one resident said.