Krakow, Poland — Pope Francis issued a rousing and impassioned call to action to young people around the world Saturday, saying our unsettled times require them to get off the couch and "set out on new and uncharted paths."
In 34-minute remarks to more than a million youths from 187 countries participating in a prayer vigil here for World Youth Day, the pontiff urged them to avoid "confusing happiness with a sofa" and instead put on their shoes and head out to "open up new horizons."
In a sometimes forceful but an often affectionately worded address, the pope in effect outlined a new, hopeful way of life for an entire generation.
"The time we are living in does not call for young couch potatoes but for young people with shoes -- or better -- boots laced," Francis exhorted the youth. "It only takes players on the first string, and it has no room for benchwarmers."
"Today’s world demands that you be a protagonist of history," said the pope. "The Lord wants to work one of the greatest miracles we can experience: he wants to turn your hands, my hands, our hands, into signs of reconciliation, of communion, of creation."
"Today, we adults need you to teach us how to live in diversity, in dialogue, to experience multiculturalism not as a threat but an opportunity," he continued.
"Have the courage to teach us that it is easier to build bridges than walls!" he nearly shouted, before adding quietly: "You will be our accusers if we choose the life of walls, of enmity, of war."
Looking out over a crowd filling miles of open field for the chance to be with him, Francis emphasized the point by asking those present to make what he termed the "primordial bridge" and take each other's hands.
As the throngs -- cassocked bishops, habited sisters, and t-shirt and shorts-wearing pilgrims among them -- locked fingers, the pontiff exclaimed: "This is a great bridge of brotherhood, and would that the powers of this world might learn to build it."
Francis was speaking Saturday evening at a vigil that was at times joyful and at other times deeply saddening. He was responding in his remarks to testimonies from three young people who have been through difficult situations.
One woman -- a 26-year-old named Rand -- explained that she lives in Aleppo, Syria, and began sobbing as she described the violent deaths of friends and family members. She poignantly asked God to grant Syrians and the world 's people "the grace to show a touch of mercy and to plant joy on the hearts of everyone that is sad."
Responding to Natalia at the beginning of his address, Francis asked for prayers for Syria and said bluntly: "This is no time for denouncing anyone or fighting."
"We have no desire to conquer hatred with more hatred, violence with more violence, terror with more terror," the pope said. "We are here today because the Lord has called us together. Our response to a world at war has a name: its name is fraternity, its name is brotherhood, its name is communion, its name is family."
Later, the pontiff warned the youth against paralysis that can come from thinking the problems of the world are too large to confront. But then he warned against what he called an "even more dangerous" kind of paralysis: "to think that in order to be happy all we need is a good sofa."
"A sofa that makes us feel comfortable, calm, safe," the pope described. "A sofa like one of those we have nowadays with a built-in massage unit to put us to sleep. A sofa that promises us hours of comfort so we can escape to the world of video games and spend all kinds of time in front of a computer screen."
"It is very sad to pass through life without leaving a mark," Francis warned. "But when we opt for ease and convenience, for confusing happiness with consumption, then we end up paying a high price indeed: we lose our freedom."
"Jesus is not the Lord of comfort, security and ease," the pontiff continued. "Following Jesus demands a good dose of courage, a readiness to trade in the sofa for a pair of walking shoes and to set out on new and uncharted paths."
"God expects something from you," Francis told the young people. "God wants something from you. God hopes in you. God comes to break down all our fences. He comes to open the doors of our lives, our dreams, our ways of seeing things."
"God comes to break open everything that keeps you closed in," said the pope. "He is encouraging you to dream. He wants to make you see that, with you, the world can be different. For the fact is, unless you offer the best of yourselves, the world will never be different."
Saturday's vigil took place about 10 miles southeast of central Krakow in a special outdoor venue set up by World Youth Day organizers that they are calling "Campus Misericordiae."
Francis entered the vigil by walking through a wooden trellis-like structure that organizers had prepared as the venue's holy door for the Jubilee year of mercy. He walked through with several young men and women, each taking hands and walking side-by side.
Once through the door, the pontiff invited the young people to join him in the pope-mobile as he drove through the crowd. Later, he asked them to sit at his feet as he sat on the large stage set up for the event.
The three testimonies were accompanied by a mini-play put on by about a dozen young people, showing different evocative scenes of younger peoples' lives today.
In one scene meant to evince the separation some people experience, several youths stood in glass boxes apart from one another as they typed or talked on their cell phones. A woman in a white dress moved around them, leading one man out of his box to dance with him.
Francis' visit to Poland continues Sunday with an open-air Mass at the same outdoor location before he heads back to Rome in the afternoon.
[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]
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