PONTIFF TALKS AT YOUTH RALLY
BY JOHN THAVIS IN LUANDA
POPE BENEDICT XVI asked nearly 30,000 Angolan young people at a rally last Saturday to shape the world according to the values of the Gospel.
The rally, held in a football stadium near Luanda, the country’s capital, was marred by a stampede that killed two young women and injured 89 others hours before the Pope arrived. The Pope was informed of the tragedy later that evening and expressed his condolences the next day.
Participants at the rally did not learn until afterward of the deaths, and the festive occasion went on as scheduled. It had a little bit of everything: native dance and song, testimonials from young Catholics, conga ensembles and, above all, tons of enthusiasm among the participants.
The focus of the Pope’s talk was a simple lesson on how to live the good life.
“My young friends, you hold within yourselves the power to shape the future,” he said. But it won’t happen without an encounter with God, he said.
“The dominant social culture is not helping you to live by Jesus’s word or to practise the self-giving to which he calls you in accordance with the Father’s plan,” he said.
Instead, he said, they need to build their lives around the renewal that begins with a personal encounter with Christ. That’s especially important when it comes to making decisions that involve a life-long commitment, like marriage, that can seem to represent a loss of freedom, he said.
“These are the doubts you feel, and today’s individualistic and hedonistic culture aggravates them,” he said. But he urged people to find inspiration in their faith.
“Life is worthwhile only if you take courage and are ready for adventure, if you trust in the Lord who will never abandon you,” he said.
The Pope also greeted a group of young people who were left orphaned or disabled by Angola’s 27-year civil war, and said he could imagine the conflict’s devastating effects on all the country’s young people.
“I think of the countless tears that have been shed for the loss of your relatives and friends. It is not hard to imagine the dark clouds that still veil the horizon of your fondest hopes and dreams,” he said.
The Pope spoke beneath a large yellow tent in Coqueiros Stadium under a hot late afternoon sun. He looked uncomfortable in the heat and several youths who had spent hours awaiting his arrival suffered heat exhaustion and had to be taken away by stretcher.
The Pontiff watched costumed dancers kick up a storm as a conga group pounded out the rhythm, their long yellow wigs shaking to the beat. Then a group of barefoot young women performed a hip-thrusting dance on the grass in front of the papal platform.
In the stands youths held up pieces of coloured cardboard in synchronised patterns, spelling out “God is love” and depicting the Pope’s smiling face. Several young Angolans spoke about their own spiritual journeys, including detours into drug and alcohol abuse. One said he was welcomed into the Church after a life of stealing and addiction, and later became a priest.
One young woman, Elsa Montenegro, said that even those active in the Church don’t have an easy time putting the faith into action. The challenges, she said, can seem overwhelming: unemployment, corruption, drug use, prostitution, Aids and abortion.
She said: “Holy Father, we are asking you to enlighten us, help us, advise us, orient us.” After delivering his talk the Pope greeted many of the performers individually. A final, haunting song was sung directly in front of the Pope by a young man in a wheelchair. The Pope embraced him warmly after the performance.
The young people presented the Pope with several gifts, including a carved ebony statue of a gazelle and a wood and gourd balafon, the xylophone-like instrument popular-throughout Africa.
The encounter was broadcast live in Angola and organisers considered it one of the most important events of the papal visit. About half of Angola’s population is aged under 15 and Church leaders said many are deeply worried about their future.
The stampede occurred when the gates of the stadium were opened about four hours before the Pope’s arrival. The two women, both 20 years old, died after being taken to a hospital. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Vatican secretary of state, visited the relatives of one of the victims the next day.