VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI and 75,000 young people gathered under the stars in St. Peter’s Square on a warm spring night to discuss the meaning of eternal life.
“First of all, we must be clear that eternal life is real life, different from our lives right now, but truly real, not something illusory or unreal,” the pope told the crowd March 25, the feast of the Annunciation.
The gathering was a prelude to World Youth Day, which this year was being celebrated by dioceses throughout the Catholic Church on Palm Sunday, March 28.
The Diocese of Rome sponsored the event, which included a look back through videos from previous World Youth Days in Rome and Sydney, Australia, as well as testimonies from World Youth Day participants. Among those speaking were a married couple, an actress and a man scheduled to be ordained to the priesthood in June.
After making his way through the darkened square in an illuminated white popemobile, the pope took his seat and answered questions posed to him by three young Italians based on the story of the rich young man in St. Mark’s Gospel, who asked: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The 82-year-old pope spoke to an audience of mostly teenagers and people in their twenties dressed in matching white T-shirts and baseball caps. Answering the questions without prepared notes, he said the Gospels are filled with accounts about how much God loves each of them for eternity.
To find God “is to know that my life is willed by God from all eternity, that I have been created from the depths of God’s eternal love and this love is waiting for me to return to him in eternity,” he said.
But the pope said God’s eternal plan is not just something for the future. God’s love and commandments, he said, affect key areas of their lives, such as “the family as the foundation of society, the respect for life as a gift from God and the proper ordering of human sexuality between men and women.”
Pope Benedict, who often uses the example of the saints to illustrate his points, cited as worthy role models for young Catholics St. Josephine Bakhita, St. Francis de Sales and Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta. They showed a desire for eternal life and concern for the world, the pope said.
The rally, which brought together youths from 43 different dioceses in Italy as well as young Catholics from other parts of the world, marked the 25th anniversary of the first World Youth Day that was called by the late Pope John Paul II in Rome in 1985.
“It was like a mini-World Youth Day in terms of the excitement, the vibrancy and the celebrative atmosphere,” said Irene Lagan of Boston, who attended this year’s event in St. Peter’s Square.
“It is easy to see from the way the pope spoke that he has an ease and a real desire on his part to connect to young people,” said Lagan, a student at Rome’s Angelicum University.
The diocesan celebrations are held in years when there is not an international gathering for World Youth Day. The next major international World Youth Day celebration is scheduled for the summer of 2011 in Madrid, Spain.