VATICAN CITY—Addressing an overflow crowd of 200,000 teachers and children in St. Peter's Square, Pope John Paul II challenged Italian authorities to provide equal funding for the country's struggling Catholic school system.

With Italy's leading political figures sitting in the front row at the Oct. 30 rally, the Pope urged the “full recognition of the legal and economic equality between state and [private] schools.”

The Pope's pointed words on the Italian situation were greeted by applause by an enthusiastic crowd that came from all over Italy. Groups of children chanted “Equality!” and “Freedom!” as the Pope allowed his message to sink in.

Catholic leaders have sought new legislation to increase aid to private schools. The Holy Father said many families have been unable to pay the extra cost of sending their children to Catholic schools. The situation for private schools in Italy is worse than in other European countries, the Pope said.

The Pope noted that Italy's center-left government has proposed limited support to private schools, but said these steps “unfortunately were not enough.”

Education Minister Luigi Berlinguer, afterward defended the govern-ment's approach. He said that private schools should enjoy legal parity but not necessarily economic parity because such a provision would appear to violate the Italian Constitution. The governing majority supports aid to Church-run nursery schools and financial assistance to the neediest parents of children in other private schools. Church leaders have said that does not go far enough.