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Gerard O’ConnellMay 26, 2024
Children cheer as they celebrate the first World Children's Day at the Olympic Stadium in Rome, Italy, May 25, 2024. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)Children cheer as they celebrate the first World Children's Day at the Olympic Stadium in Rome, Italy, May 25, 2024. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

Pope Francis celebrated the first ever World Children’s Day this weekend, which brought together 50,000 children from 100 countries in Rome’s Olympic Stadium on Saturday, May 25, and in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday, May 26.

The children (under the age of 18), accompanied by parents and grandparents, gave him a tremendous welcome when he entered the Olympic Stadium on Saturday afternoon in a papal jeep and drove among them.

Father Enzo Fortunato, the communications director for St. Peter’s Basilica and the main organizer of this event, greeted him together with-five children—from Brazil, China, Australia, Burundi and Italy—representing five continents.

“You speak of life and the future, and the church—as mother—welcomes you, and accompanies you,” Francis said as he began a lively, interactive dialogue with the children, with him asking questions and the children shouting their responses. As a Jesuit priest in parishes in Buenos Aires, he would often engage in such dialogues with children. Among the children present were some from Ukraine and Palestine, and when he asked everyone in the stadium if they thought “war” is “good,” they shouted “no!” He then asked them what they did want, and they shouted back “Peace!” He then asked them to shake hands with each other and told them, “That’s the way to make peace.”

When Pope Francis asked everyone in the stadium if they thought “war” is “good,” they shouted “no!” 

Francis then asked them to join him in praying for children suffering from war, children who can’t go to school, children who do not have enough to eat, and he invited them to recite the “Ave Maria” with him.

The three-hour festival included music, songs, artistic performances and even a rather chaotic 10-minute soccer game with a few well-known Italian soccer stars helping the children.

Several children asked the pope questions regarding war, injustice and why so many families are “without a home, food or work.” The pope, who had a big basket of candy next to him, responded in various ways, and then gave each child who asked a question a sweet. He told them: “So many are without food, but we are egoists.” People are without food or homes and this also “is the fruit of war, we spend money on arms!”

When one child asked, “if you could do one miracle, what would it be?” he answered: “That all children could have what is necessary for life, enough to eat, to play, to go to school…that all children be happy,” adding: “Let us pray to the Lord for all this, and let us pray for peace in the world.”

On Sunday morning, Francis presided at Mass in St. Peter’s Square, under a clear blue sky and sunshine, again attended by 50,000 children, many accompanied parents or grandparents. The prime minister of Italy, Giorgia Meloni, was also present.

Speaking without a script, the Argentine pope engaged in a dialogue with the children about the Trinity. When it came to speak about the Holy Spirit, he explained that the Spirit “accompanies us through life,” and encouraged the children to repeat it several times. As he did on Saturday, he invited them again to join him in reciting the Hail Mary. And he asked them to pray for their parents, grandparents and peace in the world.

When the Mass ended and the pope had given his blessing, this extraordinary festive event concluded with a 20-minute monologue by Roberto Benigni, the famous Italian comedian, actor and film director. He told the children that the Vatican is “the smallest state in the world but it has the greatest man in the world—Pope Francis.” He then kissed the pope, who seemed to enjoy every minute of his performance.

Re-echoing the pope’s call for peace, Mr. Benigni—famous for his film “Life is Beautiful”—told the children, “War is ugly!” He called for an end to the wars in today’s world and he encouraged the children to “be heroes” and “build a better world.”

The Jesuit pope concluded Sunday morning’s celebration by driving in his popemobile among the children in St. Peter’s Square, causing scenes of immense joy and enthusiasm.

Last December, Pope Francis decided to hold a World Children’s Day to draw global attention to the plight and suffering of so many of the world’s 2.3 billion children from poverty, war, forcible displacement and the effects of climate change. According to UNICEF, more than 400 million children are living in conflict situations today.

Long before becoming pope, Francis was deeply concerned at the plight of so many children living in poverty, visible when he visited the shanty towns of Buenos Aires. He has become even more conscious of this problem from his foreign visits to 61 countries. Since becoming pope on March 2013, he has become increasingly aware of the suffering of children in war and conflict worldwide, starting with Syria. In recent times he has become acutely aware of the killing and wounding of so many children first as a result of Russia’s ongoing attack on Ukraine, and since Oct. 7, 2023, he has been profoundly disturbed at the deaths of more than 15,000 Palestinian children in Gaza, and the injuring of many thousands more, as a result of Israel’s ongoing attack on Gaza, where more than 47 percent of the population is under the age of 18.

Since becoming pope in March 2013, Francis has established three new “World Days” aimed at focusing on a particular subject, which are to be celebrated each year in churches and dioceses throughout the Catholic world.

He first established “The World Day for the Poor” in 2017, after celebrating the Jubilee of Mercy (2015-2016), to get Catholics worldwide to focus on the poor, who he insists are at the heart of the Gospel, and to work to combat poverty. This day is to be celebrated in churches worldwide on the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time in the liturgical calendar, usually towards the end of November.

Francis established “The World Day of Grandparents and the Elderly” in 2021 and decreed that it be celebrated in churches worldwide on the fourth Sunday of July, near the liturgical feast of Saints Joachim and Anne, the grandparents of Jesus (July 26).

St. John Paul II celebrated the first World Youth Day on April 14, 1984. Now almost exactly 40 years later Pope Francis started the first World Children’s Day. At the end of Mass this morning, he announced that the second World Children’s Day will be held in September 2026.

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