In good hands

The inaugural World Children’s Day, initiated by Pope Francis, focused on
empowering youth to actively shape the world that we live in.

 CARING FOR OUR COMMON HOME 

The European sunshine in Rome created its own warmth – literally, metaphorically and spiritually – at the city’s famous Olympic Stadium on the afternoon of Saturday 25 May.  

At this huge venue, the centrepiece of the 1960 Rome Olympics, the focus of the first Vatican-initiated World Children’s Day was squarely on youth, and the atmosphere was visibly exuberant and joyful, with children from a multitude of nations in attendance.  

The context of the event, and its relevance in guiding and shaping Planet Earth, our common home, was beautifully explained by the Vatican: “The idea of a Day entirely dedicated to the youngest among us had been proposed to the Pope in July (2023) by a child, nine-year-old Alessandro, on the occasion of the Popecast, the second podcast made by Vatican Media with Pope Francis (in the context of the World Youth Day in Lisbon).  

“I like it very much!” the Pope replied after listening to the boy’s voice message. “A beautiful idea. I will think about it and see how to do it.”  

It is perfectly logical that the first World Children’s Day – not to be confused with the United Nations initiative that is observed each November – responds to the question, “What kind of world do we want to leave to the children who are growing up now?” The straightforward answer provided by the Pope at the Angelus on 8 December – “Like Jesus, we want to put children at the centre and care for them” – was the basis for initiating the celebration. 

In the words of Fr Enzo Fortunato SJ, the General Coordinator of World Children’s Day: “On 8 December 2023, the Holy Father announced the first World Children’s Day, to be held on 25 and 26 May, entrusting the organisation (of the event) to the Dicastery for Culture and Education and, at the same time, appointing me Coordinator. It is a demanding but exciting task, in which I will be assisted by the Sant’Egidio Community and the Auxilium Cooperative. 
 
“As Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça reminds us, in his Letter to the Brothers in the Episcopate: ‘As a new event, prepared in a short time, the first Day will resemble the rehearsal of a concert rather than the concert itself, a seed rather than a tree’.” 

Pope Francis speaks during the inaugural World Children’s Day (WCD 2024) celebration held at Rome’s Olympic Stadium on Saturday, 25 May. Photo: Abaca Press/Alamy Live News

But the opening day was less a rehearsal than a day characterised by exultation, reverence and spontaneity. The whole stadium cheered as the white Popemobile entered the historic venue. Beside the Pope, seated close enough to reverently grasp his hands, were children, reflecting the true meaning of the weekend. 

As noted in the curtain-raiser report on the Jesuits.Global website, For children, the future is built on sharing, “At the heart of the Year of Prayer, this event opens an opportunity to celebrate children’s dreams of peace and the future, inviting them to put their spontaneity at the service of human relations. It is also an occasion for the Pope to put this age group back at the centre of attention for the Church and society.” 

In the stadium, the Pope waved to every section of the crowded stadium as his vehicle made its way around the track, eventually coming to a halt near a four-metre white cross painted with special symbols. His white chair was not separated in any way from the children; rather, they were in close proximity, for this event was about them, and about the global future that they will help to define. 

With a microphone in his hand, Fr Enzo says: “This choir of children says, ‘Thank you’. Make yourselves be heard, children.”

The first of the children who speaks, standing in front of the Pope and facing him, is Vincenzo, wearing a green T-shirt. “Hello, Holy Father,” he says, his head bowed in concentration, “a big greeting from all the children of Europe that have worked for peace.” 

A boy from the Republic of Burundi, wearing a headband and traditional robes, has a nervous beginning but says, “Hello, Pope Francis. Thank you for being here with us and for being with all the children of the world who want a just world.” 

A Chinese girl, Valerie, wearing a lime-green cheongsam, speaks confidently, saying, “Hello, Pope Francis. Welcome from all the kids in Asia.” A girl from Australia is next and has to be gently encouraged to speak in louder tones. “Hello, Pope Francis,” she says, “we children from Oceania are happy to be with you. We came from the other side of the world.” 

The Pope’s message resonated strongly, “All of you, girls and boys, are a source of joy for your parents and your families, but also for our human family and for the Church, in which each of us is like a link in a great chain stretching from the past to the future and covering the whole earth. That is why I encourage you to pay attention to the stories of grown-ups: your mums and dads, your grandparents and great-grandparents.  

“Do not forget all those other children and young people who are already battling illness and hardship, in hospital or at home, and those who even now are being cruelly robbed of their childhood. I think of children who are victims of war and violence, those experiencing hunger and thirst, those living on the streets, those forced to be soldiers or to flee as refugees, separated from their parents, those prevented from going to school, and those who fall prey to criminal gangs, drugs or other forms of slavery and abuse. Let us listen to their voices. We need to hear those voices, for amid their sufferings they remind us of reality, with their tearful eyes and with that tenacious yearning for goodness that endures in the hearts of those who have truly seen the horror of evil. 

“We cannot be happy all by ourselves, because our joy increases to the extent that we share it. Joy is born of gratitude for the gifts we have received and which we share in turn and it grows in our relationships with others. When we keep the blessings we have received to ourselves, or throw tantrums to get this or that gift, we forget that the greatest gift that we possess is ourselves, one another: all of us, together, are ‘God’s gift’. Other gifts are nice, but only if they help us to be together. If we don’t use them for that purpose, we will always end up being unhappy; they will never be enough. 

“Instead, when we are all together, everything is different! Think of your friends, and how great it is to spend time with them: at home, at school, in the parish and the playground, everywhere. Playing, singing, discovering new things, having fun, everyone being together and excluding no one. Friendship is wonderful and it grows only in this way: through sharing and forgiving, with patience, courage, creativity and imagination, without fear and without prejudice.”