Always pray, and pray especially for an end to all wars, Pope Francis told children during Mass concluding the Church’s first ever World Children’s Day.

‘We are here to pray, to pray together and to pray to God,’ the father, who created the world, to his son, Jesus, who saved humanity, and to the Holy Spirit, ‘who accompanies us in life’, he said in his homily on 26 May, the solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity.

About 50,000 children and adults gathered in St Peter’s Square for the Mass wrapping up the two-day event, which began in Rome’s Olympic Stadium on 25 May, where a similar number gathered. Pope Francis established the world day as a ‘movement of boys and girls who want to build a world of peace, where we are all brothers and sisters, a world that has a future because we want to take care of the environment around us’, he said at the stadium.

‘Joy is healthy for the soul’

Children and their carers gathered in the stadium on Saturday for a sunny afternoon of music, dance and even a brief friendly match in the centre field between two teams made up of kids and retired Italian soccer champions. Multiple award–winning goalie Gianluigi Buffon placed a soccer ball in front of the Pope, who kicked the ball from the sidelines to symbolically kick-off the game, later signing the ball and the kids’ jerseys.

The Pope established the world day after holding a smaller encounter at the Vatican in November 2023 with some 7,500 children from 84 countries dedicated to learning from young children and listening to their questions about the future.

That event ‘brought a wave of joy’ and ‘left a lasting impression in my heart,’ he told the kids and those accompanying them in the stadium. He said he wanted that conversation to continue, and ‘that is why we are here today.’

The Pope told the children he knows they are sad about war, and he recounted his meeting earlier that day with children from Ukraine, Palestine and other parts of the world experiencing war, including many who had been injured and were in Italy to receive care.

The Pope asked the children in the stadium to pray for their peers who cannot go to school, who suffer from war, who have no food or who are sick and lack medical care.

‘Dear children, let us press ahead and be joyful. Joy is healthy for the soul,’ he said.

Dozens of children representing different continents and countries gave the Pope gifts, including letters, drawings and a pectoral cross modelled after the large and colourful ‘cross of joy’ that was created for the world day and that accompanied the events.

Riad, a young boy from Syria, gave Pope Francis copies of photos taken in 2016 when the Pope invited him and 11 other Syrian refugees to fly with him to Italy from a refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece.

‘He’s grown!’ the Pope said, looking at the young boy and the photos of him as a small child.

Between musical sets, children from different parts of the world asked the Pope questions, such as what can children do to make the world a better place. Speak nicely, play together and help others, the Pope replied.

How can people truly love everyone? a boy asked the Pope. ‘It’s not easy,’ the Pope said. But start with just the people in one’s own life, including one’s classmates, and expand from there, he said.

He also urged the kids to respect and visit their grandparents, who gave life, raised families and passed down their wisdom.

‘We are happy because we believe’

Girls and boys were active participants during the Mass on Sunday, ministering as altar servers, singing in the choirs, doing some of the readings, including the prayers of the faithful, and bringing the offertory gifts. The Pope also took the time to briefly and simply explain different moments of the Mass when it was his time to speak.

The Pope did not read his prepared homily, choosing instead to remind the children of the meaning of the Holy Trinity as three persons in one God and why it is important to pray to them.

‘God loves us so much,’ he said, and the faithful always ask him to ‘accompany us in life and help us grow’, especially by praying the ‘Our Father’.

‘We pray to Jesus so that he may help us, so he may be close to us,’ the Pope said. The faithful receive Christ by taking Communion, and Jesus forgives all sins, even the worst ones.

‘Do not forget this. Jesus always forgives everything, and we must have the humility to ask for forgiveness,’ as well as recognise our mistakes and difficulties, and our intention to change course and seek help from God, he said.

The Holy Spirit ‘is inside of us’, after receiving him with baptism and the sacraments, the Pope said. He gives the faithful strength and consolation during difficulties. ‘The Holy Spirit accompanies us in life,’ he said.

‘We are happy because we believe. Faith makes us happy, and we believe in God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit,’ he said.

Blessing the children, Pope Francis asked that they pray for each other so that they all may continue to forge ahead in life, to pray for their parents, grandparents and for children who are ill, some of whom were at the Mass.

‘Always pray and, above all, pray for peace so that there will be no more wars,’ he said.

After Mass and the Angelus, the Pope shook hands and greeted dozens of kids. He also announced that the next world day would be in September 2026.

Italian actor and comic, Roberto Benigni, gave an energetic ‘pep talk’ to the children, encouraging them to read, create and share fairy tales.

He assured parents that fairy tales don’t teach children that dragons and ogres exist; kids already know they exist. ‘Fairy tales teach kids that dragons can be defeated!’

He said there is only one rule in life, and it is ‘the only sensible thing’ he has ever heard ‘in the history of humanity’, and that is what Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes. Basically, be deeply good, he said.

‘Don’t wait for the world to take care of you. Take care of the world, at least what is within reach. Love each other, love everyone closest to you, be good,’ he said.

Banner image: People celebrate the first World Children’s Day at the Olympic Stadium in Rome, Italy, 25 May 2024. (Photo: CNS/Lola Gomez.)