Pope Speaks at Sea of Galilee

Posted: Friday, March 24, 2000

KORAZIM, Israel (AP) -- Stepping into the pages of the New Testament, Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass today on a pastoral green hill near where Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount and asked young believers from across the globe 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. The pilgrims filled the sprawling open-air clearing carved into a hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee, the area where the Gospels say Jesus performed many of his miracles.

``We sit on this hill like the first disciples and we listen to Jesus,'' the pope proclaimed from a gray thronelike chair on a canvas-covered stage. ``His call has always demanded a choice between the two voices competing for your hearts. ... The choice between good and evil.''

Pilgrims young and old -- nuns in mud-stained habits, Arabs in keffiyeh headdresses, backpackers in rain slickers -- listened mainly in silent contemplation to the papal homily that echoed the Beatitudes, Christ's famous words about humility and love. Some stood motionless, while others sat on plastic sheeting on the muddy ground, hands clasped around their knees.

``This is the most important message that could be,'' said Stefania Esposito, 28, of Salerno, Italy, who like many in the crowd had traveled to the Holy Land as part of a Christian youth group. ``We all need to be forgiven by God and each other.''

Mexican pilgrim Rosie Morales, 34, who had left her nearby guesthouse at 3 a.m. to arrive early for the 2 1/2 -hour Mass, was exuberant. ``I feel my heart is going to burst from happiness,'' she said.

This afternoon, the pope met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who briefed him on Mideast peacemaking. Barak said the pope's visit was a major contribution to reconciliation between Christians and Jews and to an improved atmosphere in peacemaking.

The meeting ran half an hour late, close to the start of the Jewish Sabbath which begins at sundown. Barak jokingly told the pontiff that he would have to rush off so as not to desecrate the Sabbath, the biblically mandated day of rest.

``We have to keep our government together,'' Barak said in a reference to the three ultra-Orthodox Jewish factions in his six-party coalition. Religious disputes have brought down a number of governments in Israel, including that of the late Yitzhak Rabin in 1977 over a delivery of fighter planes that cut into the Sabbath.

The pontiff'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 pope has said he hopes to achieve by walking in Christ's footsteps.

The site of the Mass was the same rocky 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 Gospel according to 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.

As throughout the papal visit, security in this northern region was heavy. Helicopters clattered overhead as long lines of pilgrims filed along roped-off roadsides under the watchful eyes of Israeli police.

Bulletproof glass shields flanked the pope's chair as he delivered his sermon. The shields, which were requested by Israel's Shin Bet security service, have not been used since the pope visited Detroit more than a decade ago.

After the Mass, a relatively small entourage was to accompany the pope on visits to two 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 fish and two loaves of bread; the others recall Jesus' admonition to the Apostle Peter to ``feed my lambs'' -- to care for the Christian flock.

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