In biblical Galilee, a gentler tone amid tumultuous papal journey

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The Independent Online

Speaking on the sacred soil where Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount, Pope John Paul II asked enthusiastic young believers from across the globe Friday to spread Christian teachings of selfless love and forgiveness.

The pontiff's voice, unusually firm and clear, carried across the crowd of close to 100,000 filling the sprawling open-air clearing carved into a hillside.

"Now, at the dawn of the third millennium, it is your turn to go out into the world to preach the message of the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes," the pontiff proclaimed from a gray, thronelike chair on a canvas-covered stage overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

Pilgrims listened in silent contemplation to the papal homily that echoed Jesus' famous sermon about humility and love. Some stood motionless, others sat on plastic sheeting on the muddy ground, their hands clasped around their knees.

"This is the most important message that could be," said Stefania Esposito, 28, of Salerno, Italy, her curly hair tucked under a baseball cap. "We all need to be forgiven by God and each other."

Mexican pilgrim Rosie Morales, 34, who had left her nearby guest house at 3 a.m. to arrive early and claim a choice spot, was exuberant. "I feel my heart is going to burst from happiness," she said.

The pope's visit to the green hills of the Galilee - the heartland of Christ's life and teachings, where the Gospels tell of him performing miracles, preaching to the multitudes and gathering his disciples to him - stands in sharp contrast to the tumult of the pope's past two days in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Since John Paul's arrival Tuesday evening from Jordan, where he began his weeklong Holy Land pilgrimage, stop after stop on his itinerary has cast a harsh spotlight on the Middle East's present-day political convulsions and its peoples' deep historical wounds.

On Thursday, in the shadowed halls of Israel's Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, the pope expressed sorrow at Jews' suffering at the hands of Christians. A day earlier, he visited a gritty, violence-plagued West Bank refugee camp and offered an unusually candid papal acknowledgment of Palestinian independence aspirations.

But in the Galilee - whose evocative landscape is in many places little changed from biblical times - the emphasis was shifting to the intimate sense of spiritual connection the aging pontiff has said he hopes to achieve by walking in Christ's footsteps.

As throughout the papal visit, security in this northern region was heavy, with traffic tightly restricted for miles (kilometers) anywhere near the pope's route. Helicopters clattered overhead as long orderly lines of pilgrims made their progress along roped-off roadsides under the watchful eyes of Israeli police.

The site of the Mass, the day's centerpiece event, is the same rock-strewn hillside where tradition holds that Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, described in one of the best-loved passages of the New Testament.

In bell-like cadences, the book of Matthew recounts Christ's teachings on that day, beginning with the famous incantation: "Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn; for they shall be comforted..."

Although attended by all ages, the Mass was aimed particularly at youth, with whom the pope, who turns 80 in May, has sought to forge a special bond in the course of his 22-year papacy.

At a tent camp set up for pilgrims a few kilometers (miles) from the Mass site, a babel of languages arose as Croatian, Indian, Italian and Polish groups prepared to make their predawn journey.

"I am so excited," said Celine Fernandez, a 47-year-old pilgrim of Portuguese ancestry from Bangalore, India. "I feel the need to be close to these places from the Bible."

After the Mass, a relatively small entourage was to accompany the pope on visits to two small churches and a shrine nestled along the lake's rocky shores.

One commemorates the biblical story of Christ feeding more than 5,000 people with only five fishes and two loaves of bread, the others recall Jesus' admonition to the Apostle Peter to "feed my lambs" - to care for the Christian flock.

Three Israeli teen-agers from a kibbutz near the Mass site, selling papal souvenirs on commission, were the only ones who appeared glum amid the festivities. "Buttons? Calendars? Key chains?" they called out plaintively as pilgrims streamed past.

"It's nice that everyone's so happy," said 15-year-old Tamar Teretz. "But no one's buying anything."

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