Ever determined, Pope John Paul II walked with a cane from his Mercedes-Benz popemobile to the stage of Exhibition Place, where tens of thousands of young people greeted him. Teenagers wrapped in flags and bandanas, priests wearing baseball caps and nuns in sunhats applauded wildly upon his arrival. "John Paul II, we love you!" they shouted as the pontiff, in a rare gesture, tipped his skullcap.
Many young people burst into tears upon seeing the only pope they have ever known.
More than 200,000 young people came to see the pontiff during the first of two planned appearances. A week of prayer, meetings with bishops, social service projects and concerts will culminate in mass with John Paul on Sunday. At one point during his talk, the pope said that the last World Youth Day had been in Krakow. The event has never been held in Poland, and the slip was widely noticed given that his health is under constant scrutiny.
Rev. Joseph Koterski, philosophy professor at Fordham University, wondered whether the pope was referring to a huge annual youth festival that concludes near Krakow every year on Aug. 15.
Regardless, the pope's voice was stronger and steadier than it has often been lately in the presence of the young people who have been a focus of his papacy. While many milled around during his speech, playing ball or waiting in line for pizza, others were transfixed by every word.
"I feel so blessed that I'm here," said Jacob Staley, 12, of South Bend, Ind. "He is a symbol of God in everybody's heart. I think he's an amazing person because he's old and yet he comes to see youth."
Colleen Maher, 14, of Kansas City, Mo., agreed: "It's really exciting just to be in his presence. I'd been looking forward to being close to him." During the past year, the pope told the crowd, "we saw with dramatic clarity the tragic face of human malice. We saw what happens when hatred, sin and death take command."
The pope, who alternated between English and French, told the young people that he loved them dearly and that he commended them "one by one" in his prayers. "Christ needs your youth and your generous enthusiasm to make his proclamation of joy resound in the new millennium," he said. The pontiff said he hoped their "contacts with pastors" will help them discover the beauty of the church, a reminder, perhaps, that good priests abound in times of crisis.
He urged the young people to "thirst for happiness" while avoiding the superficial pleasures that come with money, success and power.
"True joy is a victory, something which cannot be obtained without a long and difficult struggle," he said. "Christ holds the secret of this victory." Listening to Jesus' words, the pope said, can "set the hearts of young people aflame and motivate their whole lives."
"Only Jesus speaks the unchanging message that responds to the deepest longings of the human heart, because he alone knows what is in each person," the pope said. "Today he calls you to be the salt and light of the world, to choose goodness, to live in justice, to become instruments of love and peace."
Koterski of Fordham says these themes have been central to John Paul's papacy. "Many of us who write about the pope have often noted that he says you cannot understand questions of peace or violence and terror or the desire in human hearts without taking it back to Christ," Koterski said.