BKERKE, Lebanon (CNS) – Pope Benedict XVI urged young Christians in the Middle East not to flee violence and economic insecurity through emigration, but to draw strength from their faith and make peace in their troubled region.
The pope spoke to some 20,000 young people from several Middle Eastern countries gathered outside the residence of the Maronite patriarch in Bkerke in a celebration that included fireworks, spotlights, singing and prayer.
The crowd began to form hours before Pope Benedict arrived in the popemobile a little after 6 p.m. After passing through the metal detector and the gates of Bkerke, visitors were greeted by Scouts who gave them an olive branch to wave to welcome the pope and a knapsack containing water, snacks, an Arabic Bible and the new edition of the youth catechism – “YouCat,” a gift from Pope Benedict.
A giant rosary fashioned from yellow and blue balloons hovered over the crowd, its colors blending in with the cloudless sky and Mediterranean Sea below the hillside.
Pope: Stay the course
Pope Benedict asked young Christians, whose population is diminishing across the Middle East, not to abandon their homelands.
“Not even unemployment and uncertainty should lead you to taste the bitter sweetness of emigration, which involves an uprooting and a separation for the sake of an uncertain future,” he said. “You are meant to be protagonists of your country’s future and to take your place in society and in the church.”
Warning against escapism, the pope urged his listeners not to “take refuge in parallel worlds like those, for example, of the various narcotics or the bleak world of pornography.”
He acknowledged that online social networks are interesting, but said they “can quite easily lead to addiction and confusion between the real and the virtual.” He called money a “tyrannical idol which blinds to the point of stifling the person at the heart.”
Offering encouragement, the pope invoked the inspiration of the first Christians, inhabitants of the Middle East who “lived in troubled times and their faith was the source of their courage and their witness.”
“Courageously resist everything opposed to life: abortion, violence, rejection of and contempt for others, injustice and war,” Pope Benedict said. “In this way you will spread peace all around you.”
Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai, in his welcoming speech, told the pope, “These youths suffer from social, political and economic crises that negatively affect their faith and cause some of them to lose the real meaning of their Christian identity.”
Two youths spoke to the pope, basing their remarks on input from young Christians from all over Lebanon.
The Middle East’s young Christians, they said, “yearn for peace and dream of a future without wars, a future where we will play an active role, where we work with our brothers, the young people of different religions to build a civilization of love … homelands where human rights and freedom are respected, where each one’s dignity is protected.”
“We are looking for a culture of peace,” they said, calling for the condemnation of violence. “We want to be living bridges, mediators of dialogue and cooperation.”
The crowd cheered when the pope said he did not forget the Syrian people, stressing that he is always praying for them and that he is glad there were some Syrian people at the gathering.
Syria’s civil war has left thousands dead and displaced hundreds of thousands of refugees since March 2011.
“The pope is saddened by your sufferings and your grief,” he said, his first public reference to the Syrian conflict since he arrived in Lebanon. “It is time for Muslims and Christians to come together so as to put an end to violence and war.”
Pope Benedict also offered a word of thanks to the Muslims in attendance, urging them to work with Christians to build up the region.
“Muslims and Christians, Islam and Christianity, can live side by side without hatred, with respect for the beliefs of each person, so as to build together a free and humane society,” the pope said.
After young people presented the prayer intentions, fireworks erupted from all corners of Bkerke, taking the pope by surprise. Sparklers cascaded from the roof of the outdoor chapel facing the stage, lighting up the sky.
At the conclusion of the gathering, spotlights atop the chapel illuminated the courtyard. The huge inflatable globe that had been placed earlier under the cross was sent airborne, with young people bouncing it like a volleyball.
A light show flashed “take-home” reminders on the walls: “love,” “missionaries of peace” and “pray.”