By Sea of Galilee, pope invokes Jesus' message

Pontiff tells crowd of 80,000 that `weak' will triumph in end

March 25, 2000|By John Rivera and Mark Matthews | John Rivera and Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KORAZIM, Israel -- High above the Sea of Galilee, Pope John Paul II invoked one of the Gospel's most powerful passages before 80,000 mostly young faithful yesterday, telling them to reject the idea that only war, deviousness and persecution yield success. The world's apparent "losers," he promised, will win in the end.

"Blessed are you," his voice rang out to applause as some in the crowd wept.

The pope quoted the Beatitudes, the essence of Jesus' teaching, near the traditional scene of the Sermon on the Mount at a morning Mass that drew modern Israel's biggest-ever Christian gathering, a highlight of his seven-day Holy Land pilgrimage.

Pilgrims came from as far as Asia and Latin America to hear him here, but his message held particular meaning for the Middle East, a region rife with oppression, where power is often held with force.

"It is strange that Jesus exalts those whom the world generally regards as weak," Pope John Paul said, in a strong voice that betrayed little fatigue from the 79-year-old's arduous trip. "He says to them, `Blessed are you who seem to be losers, because you are the true winners: The kingdom of heaven is yours!' "

In a world where "the violent often triumph and the devious seem to succeed," he said, "Jesus offers a very different message."

Since arriving in the Holy Land, Pope John Paul has appealed to Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians with universal calls for peace, justice and an end to bigotry.

His day in the Galilee, the base of Jesus' ministry, was Christian in focus, intended to strengthen the church's place in the Holy Land and shore up its dwindling Christian population of about 130,000.

The pope visited Capernaum, where Jesus is believed to have lived, preached and healed the sick, and sites commemorating his appointment of the disciple Peter to lead his followers and the miracle of the loaves. He also held a meeting at a hostel on the Mount of the Beatitudes with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and other Israeli leaders. Barak jokingly told the pontiff he had to rush off so as not to desecrate the Jewish Sabbath, which begins at sundown Friday.

Months in the planning and produced with technical prowess, the Mass drew tens of thousands of young people from around the world who held an array of national flags and banners. Many belong to the Neocatechumenal Catholic revival movement.

Locally, more attendees were from the Galilee area, home to many of Israel's Arab Christians; occupied southern Lebanon; and Jordan. About 5,000 permits were given to residents of the West Bank and Gaza to cross into Israel.

Two busloads of 100 United Nations peacekeepers, dressed in khaki uniforms and blue berets, also attended.

The Mass was mostly conducted in English, Arabic and Italian, but the pope called out greetings in seven languages.

The immense stage offered a feast of colors, from the cream of the pope's billowing cloak to the brilliant yellows worn by other churchmen and the blue, white and black choir vestments, all set against a striking red and green carpet.

A canopy was designed to look like a Bedouin tent. In front of the stage, hundreds of priests formed a sea of white robes.

The pope, seated on a basalt-like throne carved with a Byzantine cross -- upside-down from a Christian cross -- was dwarfed by a huge poster of Jesus drawn in bold strokes.

At one point, a strong wind blew off his skullcap, leaving his thin, gray hair blowing as he sat pensively with the Sea of Galilee beyond, his trembling left hand causing his crucifix-topped shepherd's staff to quiver.

The service, with a heavy measure of Eastern ritual and music in deference to the many Greek Melkite Catholics participating, so moved one young man dressed in black that he fell to his knees and put his head to the ground.

When the pope uttered the words, "Blessed are the poor in spirit," a Spanish woman in the crowd was racked with sobs. Nearby, a nun stood with her head bowed and hands together, the tips of her fingers touching the bridge of her nose. Tears streamed down her cheeks.

David Hotzyridze, 17, a seminary student from Ukraine, said it might appear that the pope has nothing to say to the young.

"But in the pope, I see the love of God," he said. "As he becomes older and sicker and weaker, he has much more strength. He has much more spirit. For me, it is an example of dying for others because the pope, in his suffering, he dies for others."

Christian Booth, 39, an engineer from Munich, Germany, sat on a plastic tarp before the Mass and gazed down at the mist-shrouded water where Jesus is said to have calmed a storm.

"It's a tremendous image," he said. "You can imagine Jesus was here 2,000 years ago, speaking to the people on this hill. It's amazing."

Some came to yesterday's Mass to determine where spiritual stirrings will lead them.

Trinnie Nacianceno, 39, of Iloilo, Philippines, said God's providence brought her to the lakeside gathering.

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