(RNS) VATICAN CITY -- Greeting the new millennium with an appeal for peace and a party for tens of thousands of children, Pope John Paul II has embarked on a crowded Jubilee schedule that will test his endurance to the limit.

The Christmas and New Year's festivities were only the start of a yearlong calendar of Holy Year events for the 79-year-old Roman Catholic pontiff, who wages a constant battle against the debilitating effects of a neurological ailment.

John Paul plans at least one pilgrimage to the Holy Land this year plus scores of special meetings with Holy Year pilgrims expected to flock to Rome and the Vatican by the hundreds of thousands.

The Vatican's Central Committee for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 has scheduled mass pilgrimages by the sick, the elderly and the disabled, as well as artists, artisans and workers, scientists, immigrants, journalists, families, athletes, politicians, farmers, soldiers and university professors.

The pope also will preside over beatifications and canonizations in St. Peter's Square, and he will visit Rome's Rebibbia Prison for a Holy Year celebration with prison inmates.

The Vatican welcomed its first mass Holy Year pilgrimage on Sunday (Jan. 2) when a crowd of some 150,000 adults and children gathered in St. Peter's Square and on the wide avenue leading from the Tiber River to the square for a children's jubilee.

"There are so many of us you can't see where it ends, perhaps to the Tiber and beyond," a smiling pope commented. "You belong to the third millennium, not the last one," John Paul told some 50,000 children, ages 6 to 14, who had traveled to the Vatican from 30 countries. Among them were 10 former child soldiers rescued by the church in Sierra Leone.

Speaking in Italian, French, English, Spanish and his native Polish, John Paul deplored poverty, violence and the exploitation of children and attacked artificial birth control and abortion.

"At the beginning of a new year, dear children and young people, we cannot forget all those of your own age who are suffering hunger or violence and those who are victims of hideous forms of exploitation," he said. "How can we forget the many children who are denied even the right to be born?"

Two days earlier, at a New Year's Eve Te Deum Mass of Thanksgiving in St. Peter's Basilica, John Paul singled out the discovery of America and the rise of fascism and communism as major events of the millennium and the century drawing to a close.

"The discovery of America, which gave the start to a new era in the history of humanity, constitutes without doubt a key element in the evaluation of the millennium that closes today," he said.

"This last century was characterized by deep and at times rapid upheavals that affected the culture and relations among peoples. It is enough to think of the two oppressive ideologies, responsible for innumerable victims," the pope said. "What suffering and what dramas. But also with exalting conquests."

On New Year's Day, John Paul drove across the Tiber to the 13th century Basilica of St. Mary Major atop the Esquiline Hill to mark the church's 32nd Annual World Day of Peace. He formally opened the basilica's Holy Door and celebrated Mass.

In his homily, the pope recalled the meeting he held in 1986 with representatives of the world's principal religions at St. Francis' birthplace of Assisi to pray for an end to the threat posed to humanity by the Cold War.

"Although we have had to note the outbreak of perilous local and regional conflicts, we nevertheless have been saved from the world conflict that appeared to be on the horizon," he said.

The pope returned to the theme of peace during the Sunday (Jan. 2) Angelus prayer from his study window. "An invocation of peace rises in chorus from every part of the world," he said. "We pray that it does not fall unheard. In this moment, my thought goes to the many victims of violence, to those who feel alone and abandoned."

On Thursday (Jan. 6), John Paul will mark Epiphany--the 12th day of Christmas and the arrival of the Magi at Jesus' manger--by consecrating newly elevated bishops and archbishops. On Sunday (Jan. 9), the Feast of Jesus' Baptism, he will baptize a group of infants.

The holiday observances will close Monday (Jan. 10) when the pope delivers an address on international issues at his New Year audience for diplomats from more than 150 countries accredited to the Vatican.

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