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Pope John Paul II departed from the usual format of his general audience on Sept. 8, the feast of the Nativity of Mary. With more than 7,000 pilgrims in attendance, the Holy Father made an anguished plea on behalf of all children who are victims of violence in the world and prayed especially for the victims of the terrorist attack on a school in Beslan, Russia.

Pope John Paul II began his talk with a meditation on Mary as a child. “We gaze upon a child who is like all other children, yet at the same time unique — the ‘blessed among women,’” he said. “Mary is the immaculate ‘daughter of Zion,’ who was destined to become the mother of the Messiah.” However, his thoughts quickly turned to the week's tragedy: “As we gaze upon the child Mary, we cannot help but think of the many defenseless children of Beslan in Ossetia, who were victims of a barbarous kidnapping and who were tragically massacred.”

The Holy Father pointed out that countless children around the world are still victims of violence, hatred, exploitation and death. “Before the cradle of the child Mary, let us renew once again our awareness of the duty we all have to watch over and defend these fragile creatures and to build for them a peaceful future,” he said.

At this point, a papal aide led the pilgrims in a “prayer for justice, peace and solidarity in the world.” Pope John Paul II ended it with his own prayer, asking God to help men understand that every child is “the richness of mankind and that violence against others is a blind alley with no exit or future.”

Today's liturgy commemorates the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This feast, which popular devotion holds in great esteem, leads us to an admiration of the pure dawn of redemption in the child Mary. We gaze upon a child who is like all other children, yet at the same time unique — the “blessed among women” (Luke 1:42). Mary is the immaculate “daughter of Zion,” who was destined to become the mother of the Messiah.

As we gaze upon the child Mary, we cannot help but think of the many defenseless children of Beslan in Ossetia, who were victims of a barbarous kidnapping and who were tragically massacred. They were inside a school, a place where children learn the values that give meaning to the history, culture and civilization of nations: mutual respect, solidarity, justice and peace. Instead, they experienced abuse, hatred and death within those walls, the fatal consequences of cruel fanaticism and insane contempt for the human person.

Innocent Victims

Our gaze now extends to all those innocent children throughout the world who are victims of the violence of grown-ups: children who are constrained to take up arms and who are trained to hate and kill; children who are forced to beg on the streets and exploited for an easy profit; children who are mistreated and humiliated by the arrogance and abuse of grown-ups; children who have been left to their own resources, deprived of the warmth of a family and of prospects for a future; children who are dying of hunger, and children who have been killed in the many conflicts in various regions of the world.

This is a loud cry of pain from children whose dignity has been wounded. It cannot and must not leave anyone indifferent. Dear brothers and sisters, beside the cradle of the child Mary, let us renew once again our awareness of the duty we all have to watch over and defend these fragile creatures and to build for them a peaceful future. Let us pray together so that the conditions will be created for them for a life that is peaceful and safe.

A Prayer for Peace

(At this point, a papal aide offered the following prayer for justice, peace and solidarity in the world.)

Brothers and sisters, accepting the Holy Father's invitation, let us raise our voice in prayer to God. Let us respond together: Hear us, O Lord!

For the children of Beslan, who have been snatched from life with brutal violence as they prepared to begin the school year, and for their parents, relatives and friends who were massacred along with them, that God in his mercy will open wide the doors of his house to them, let us pray.

Hear us, O Lord!

For the wounded, for the victims' families, and for all the members of the community of Beslan, who, with broken hearts, weep over the death of their loved ones, so that, sustained by the light of faith and comforted by the solidarity of so many people throughout the world, they will be able to forgive all those who have done evil to them, let us pray.

Hear us, O Lord!

For all the children who, in so many parts of the world, suffer and die because of the violence and the abuse of adults, that the Lord will help them feel the comfort of his love and soften the hardness of heart of those who are the cause of their sufferings, let us pray.

Hear us, O Lord!

For the many people who have been kidnapped in the troubled land of Iraq, especially for the two young Italian women who were working as volunteers and were kidnapped yesterday in Baghdad, that they will all be treated with respect and soon be returned unharmed to the love of those who are dear to them, let us pray.

Hear us, O Lord!

For justice and peace in the world, that the Lord will enlighten the minds of all those who are subject to the deadly fascination of violence and open the hearts of all to dialogue and reconciliation in order to build a future of hope and peace, let us pray.

Hear us, O Lord! (The Holy Father then ended the prayer with the following words.)

God, our Father, you created men to live in communion with one another. Help us to understand that every child is a treasure of mankind and that violence against others is a blind alley with no exit to the future. We ask this through the intercession of the Virgin Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns forever and ever.