VATICAN CITY—Religious men and women gain more than they lose when they take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, Pope John Paul II said.

“Far from being a renunciation which impoverishes, [the vows] constitute a choice which frees the person for a fuller realization of his potentialities,” he said Feb. 2 during a Mass in St. Peter's Square celebrating the Jubilee for Consecrated Life.

The vows also give an important message to the world, he said: “Those who vigilantly await the fulfillment of Christ's promises are able to communicate hope to their brothers and sisters, often distrustful and pessimistic regarding the future.”

Attending the Mass under cloudy skies were some 35,000 religious men and women, dressed in a wide variety of black, brown, blue and white habits. The liturgy, celebrating the feast of the Presentation, began with a traditional candle-blessing ceremony.

In his homily the Pope said his worldwide travels had enabled him to see firsthand the good being done by religious in every part of the world, particularly with the poor and marginalized.

“You give thanks to God for the good [you have] done and at the same time you ask pardon for whatever defects have marked the life of your religious families,” he told the religious.

“You interrogate yourselves, at the beginning of a new millennium, regarding the most efficacious ways to contribute, with respect to [your] original charisms, to the new evangelization, reaching the many people who are still ignorant of Christ.”

Climbing down from a vantage point atop a crowd barrier, a young Franciscan nun in full brown habit beamed broadly about her experience at the Mass.

“I enjoyed it so much!” said 24-year-old Italian Franciscan Sister Cristina Banfi.

“It was a real living of the communion of the Church. One thing that the Holy Father said that struck me was his emphasis on the beauty of the variety of charisms” in the Church.

“I also like how he called us to communicate joy to people who are often in such need of it,” she said.

Sister Francine Maas, a member of the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa, said, “I was glad to see so many people here, young people as well.”

In an interview marking the Jubilee for Consecrated Life, Father Timothy Radcliffe, superior general of the Dominicans, said religious communities faced with a serious vocations crisis, should be more concerned with quality than with beefing up their numbers.

“I prefer three vibrant communities to 10 which fight for survival,” he told Avvenire, the Italian Catholic daily, Feb. 2.

“It doesn’t matter if in the future there will be fewer communities or if a congregation sees its current [membership] halved,” he said. “What counts is that the communities are vibrant and seeds of the future.”

At the heart of renewal for religious communities in the new millennium must be a recovery “of authentic simplicity and poverty,” the Dominican said.

“Over the centuries many religious congregations have become rich, a fact which one can always justify with our many ‘important’ projects: but religious life has been more vital and attractive when we have been genuinely poor,” he said.

During the Mass, the heads of international religious unions presented the Pope with a donation for the needy, billed as a “gesture of solidarity and communion.” Augustinian Father Eusebio Hernandez, the Vatican official in charge of organizing the Jubilee, declined in late January to specify the amount collected from religious communities worldwide, but said it was “substantial.”

The papal Mass capped four days of Jubilee events in Rome for religious men and women. Other activities included 10 hours of eucharistic adoration at the Basilica of St. Mary Major and a nationally televised celebration of song and prayer in the Paul VI Audience Hall. The ceremony included a Via Lucis (The Way of the Light), fourteen stations recalling Christ's post-resurrection appearances. (From combined wire services)