Youth being youth, the historical significance of the moment seemed lost on the fresh-faced multitude from the far corners of the planet. They sang, chattered and flirted, and did their cheerful best to keep from slipping down in the puddling gruel. The gathering had the air of a Catholic Woodstock, though at least some, like the intense Spanish kid who kneeled in the mud and trash during the consecration, were caught up in the gravity of the event.
It's well known that more than anything else, this pope loves ministering to young people. John Paul's voice, which has been weak and halting during this pilgrimage, was remarkably clear and forceful Friday. And while it must be said that he is generally not well served by his speechwriters, the pontiff's Galilee sermon was terrific.
He seemed fully aware of the sense of history present on these shores, where Jesus called his apostles to be "fishers of men" and carried out his early ministry.
The pope paid homage to the Jewish roots of Christianity when he linked the Beatitudes delivered on this hill to the Ten Commandments given to the Hebrews on Mount Sinai.
"These two mountains--Sinai and the Mount of the Beatitudes--offer us a roadmap of our Christian life and summary of our responsibilities to God and neighbor," he said.
The words Jesus spoke are as scandalous today as they were then, the pope said, because they exalted humility, purity of heart, suffering and peacemaking in a world which says (in the pope's characterization), "Blessed are the proud and violent, those who prosper at any cost, who are unscrupulous, pitiless, devious, who make war not peace, and persecute those who stand in their way."
"And this voice," he continued. "seems to make sense in a world where the violent often triumph and the devious seem to succeed. 'Yes,' says the voice of evil, 'they are the ones who win. Happy are they!'"
John Paul said that Jesus demands that we choose between good and evil, and the decision is no more difficult today than it was for those who first heard his call on these shores.
"When God speaks, he speaks of things which have the greatest importance for each person, for the people of the 21st century no less than those of the first century," John Paul concluded. "The Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes speak of truth and goodness, of grace and freedom: of all that is necessary to enter into Christ's kingdom. Now it is your turn to be courageous apostles of that kingdom!"
As the pontiff spoke, I kept looking out over the tranquil waters, trying to imagine what Jesus saw when he stood on this spot and preached to the multitudes. The shores of Galilee are largely unchanged from Jesus' time; if anything, they are more rural and pastoral, because most of the towns along the lake, including Capernaum, the headquarters of Jesus' Galilean ministry, have disappeared.
So much happened in this place! These are the waters Jesus calmed in the storm, upon which he walked, and from which the disciples pulled nets bursting with fish. Those cliffs in the distance are the ones over which Jesus drove the Gadarene swine. On a clear day, you can stand here and see the place where Jesus fed the 5,000 with the miracle of the loaves and fishes.
And this is the ground upon which Jesus, just prior to his Ascension, conferred authority on Peter, the first pope.
How is it that a single speech given in this backwater by an itinerant young rabbi could have helped build a civilization and inspired a religion now claimed by a billion souls?
How is it that tens of thousands of young followers of Christ would travel from the world over twenty centuries later to the very site where that rabbi first spoke these words?
And what power draws them here to listen to an elderly Pole--who represents an unbroken link to Peter the Galilean--renew the call made in that sermon, and in the ministry of the man Peter served faithfully unto his own death by crucifixion in faraway Rome.
Peter came home from Rome in the guise of his 263rd successor, and the glory of that, and the sound of the "Kyrie eleison" resounding through the Galilean hills, is enough to make one weep.
The Israeli government, which has gone to remarkable lengths to accomodate the pope and his legions of followers, planted a tree today near the Galilean shore to mark John Paul's historic visit. In this eternal land, where the ancient past is as contemporary as the daily papers, it's easy to imagine that two millenia from now, young followers of Christ will gather here in the shade of that tree to think on these things.