VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis met and spoke with close to 500 youths Thursday at St. Peter’s Basilica, where they had arrived from the central Italian Diocese of Piacenza-Bobbio as part of a pilgrimage to Rome.
“This is a moment really of trepidation and joy, but also of deep faith, expressed through pure affection for the Pope,” said Bishop Gianni Ambrosio of Piacenza just before the encounter.
The pilgrimage has included several different stages and “has its culminating moment here in the meeting with the Holy Father in St. Peter’s Basilica,” Bishop Ambrosio said in an interview with Vatican Radio.
The pilgrims and their bishop journeyed to Rome as part of the Church’s Year of Faith initiative, with the theme “Upon This Rock.”
Bishop Ambrosio traveled last month to Rio de Janeiro with some of the young pilgrims to take part in World Youth Day with Pope Francis.
“Our World Youth Day somehow concludes itself with this encounter with the Holy Father,” he said, adding that “this is the most beautiful and happiest moment of this journey.”
The bishop said that the young people had been somewhat anxious right before the meeting, but also felt a sense of closeness with the Holy Father, “recognizing the Pope as their dad.”
Some of the young people had asked the bishop to address the Holy Father as “Dearest Pope Francis,” because “they want to express their filial love towards the Pope, the bond and the choice of belonging to the Church.”
Bishop Ambrosio said they had also eagerly awaited the meeting as an opportunity to “profess the Catholic and apostolic faith along with the one who is the Successor of Peter.”
The youths had hoped their encounter with Pope Francis would be “a moment when we raise our eyes to the sky, toward the Lord Jesus, knowing that the Lord Jesus is present in his Church here, through the figure of the Pope, through the figure of the bishops, through the great figures of the saints, which are the beacons of our Church, the people of God on the way,” he said.
The bishop told the young people that they should use the opportunity of meeting Pope Francis to “illuminate their paths” and “live the way of faith in the light, in joy and in great company with the Lord, with the Pope, the bishops and all the people of the Lord.”
Journalists were not permitted to attend the meeting between the pilgrims and the Holy Father, who has become known for speaking in a casual and off-the-cuff manner in private encounters. The Pope spoke to the young people at the basilica’s main altar, the Altar of the Chair.
After the gathering, Pope Francis went to the Basilica of St. Augustine in Campo Marzio to preside over evening Mass with Augustinians gathered from around the world.